Washington mudslide communities continue to search for miracles
DARRINGTON, Washington (CNN) — People in rural Washington state will continue to search for survivors, more than a week after a massive mudslide killed at least 18 people and left 30 missing.
“We are hoping for a miracle,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee told CNN’s “State of the Union with Candy Crowley.” “We are going to do everything we can to look for that miracle and care for these (affected) families.”
The number of people unaccounted for after the March 22 landslide dropped Saturday to 30 from 90, officials said.
At least 18 people have died, Jason Biermann, a program manager for the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management, said Saturday evening at a news conference.
A 19th body was found in the debris field, but was not identified and therefore wasn’t counted in the death toll, he said.
Inslee said officials would be in an active rescue mode as long as there was any possibility of finding survivors.
The governor pointed to the deep grief the community feels, but said it also is very resilient and he is amazed by acts of courage and inspiration by the people involved in search efforts.
“These people are showing some courage and resolution and they are hanging together too,” he told CNN. “This is a place that is pretty tough.”
Inslee said the conditions searchers face are extremely difficult. Sometimes it takes five minutes just to go 50 feet, he said.
Emergency management officials had said all week they expected the number of people unaccounted for would drop dramatically as residents of Darrington and nearby Oso turned up.
“We expected that number to drop in part due to a combination of finding people who registered as safe and well, and cross-referencing the list with confirmed identities of victims at the ME’s (medical examiner’s) office,” Biermann said.
Biermann said the challenge of identifying victims is becoming more complicated as search operations continue.
“The slide hit with such force that the rescuers are not finding full, intact bodies,” he said.
Volunteers are also collecting family mementos from the debris so they can be cleaned and returned to their owners.
Remembering the dead
On Sunday, a church in Oso held a service for the families of people lost in the landslide.
A different kind of ceremony was held Saturday.
Residents and rescuers paused in the rain at 10:37 a.m., the exact time when a landslide forever changed their world a week earlier.
That’s when the mountain-sized torrent of mud swept over a mile, knocking over homes and trees.
In Saturday’s moment of silence, officials eulogized the rural residents who lost their lives inside their homes or on the road when the hillside collapsed, after a month of ground-soaking rain, and obliterated everything in its path.
“Our community is changed forevermore,” Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin told 40 people outside the fire station, where the flag fluttered at half-staff. “It’s going to take a long time to heal.”
Indeed, even rescue crews at the disaster zone stopped work in the mud and observed the short vigil, said Steve Mason, a Snohomish County fire battalion chief.
Dogs join search
Meanwhile, rescuers brought in more dogs — both rescue and cadaver canines — last week to search for buried survivors or bodies. Many of those dogs were rested on Sunday.
Noting the stark reality of the ongoing search, Rankin said that Saturday’s standstill of 30 seconds “is all the rest we’re going to get.”
“In our minds, we are in recovery mode. In our hearts, we are still in rescue mode,” he added.
At groceries, pharmacies and community centers in Snohomish County, residents stopped what they were doing and held the momentary vigil on a gray day that obscured the mountaintops.
About 8 miles down the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River from Oso — where the landslide occurred — a store cashier bowed his head in silence. Outside his Food Pavilion store in Arlington, shoppers also stopped, huddled around a cart, and looked solemnly at the ground. After 20 seconds of silence, the shopping resumed.
Back at Darrington, about 15 miles from Oso, residents used Saturday’s solemnity to recall what they were doing when the massive hillside came crashing down.
Rankin was at a hardware store to buy screws for a weekend project. Then the credit card machines went down. Then came word of the landslide, with a home in its path.
Pastor Michael De Luca was having coffee with the local barber in his shop at the time.
“A woman came through the door and asked for a cell phone. She wanted to make a call. She said, ‘I was following a car and a slide pushed it off the road,'” De Luca recounted.
That’s how locals began to learn of the catastrophe 60 miles northeast of Seattle.
While more than 100 rescuers labored in the rain and mud Saturday and Sunday, officials said they were concerned about flooding in the nearby waterway.
Kris Rietmann, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation who gave updates Sunday on the effort on the eastern side of the slide, said the river had risen about 1 foot over the weekend.
Crews also built a secondary road to the mudslide area for safer access for search crews, Rietmann said.
CNN’s Chelsea Carter, Dan Simon, Linda Hall and Paul Vercammen contributed from Washington. Michael Martinez, Greg Botelho, Matt Smith, Mariano Castillo, Gabe Ramirez, Ana Cabrera and Jason Hanna also contributed to this report. Steve Almasy and Ralph Ellis in Atlanta reported and wrote.