Washington landslide toll to climb ‘substantially’

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(CNN) — Rescuers returned to what a fire chief called the “unreal” scene of a deadly landslide in Washington’s Cascade Mountains Thursday with the grim expectation that more bodies await them.

“You just can’t fathom what we’re up against out there until you get out there and see the lay of the land,” Snohomish County Fire District Chief Travis Hots said.

“You’ve got clay balls the size of ambulances that have rolled off that hill and smashed everything that they’ve come in contact with,” he said.

Saturday’s landslide left dozens of buildings covered in up to 40 feet of mud near the town of Oso, about 60 miles northeast of Seattle. Scores of rescuers have been digging into the slide with chainsaws, pumps and their hands trying to save lives or, at least, bring solace to family members by finding remains.

“Sometimes it takes several hours to get somebody out of an area,” Hots said. When a body is extracted, “You can almost hear a pin drop out there. You see seasoned veterans in this business, they start to tear up. Their eyes get glossy.”

While the official death toll stands at 16, at least eight more bodies await inclusion in the official count once medical examiners identify them. When they do, “You’re going to see these numbers increase substantially,” Hots said.

Among the dead was Summer Raffo, who was driving past the area when the slide hit.

“My heart is broken. It’s broken,” her mother, Rae Smith, said.

And pointing out homes on a map, volunteer rescuer Peter Selvig noted the seemingly random nature of the fatalities.

“This guy lived and his wife died … we were on the school board together for about 30 years,” Selvig said.

A total of 90 people remain missing or unaccounted for, and Hots said searchers haven’t given up hope of rescuing at least some of them. But no survivors have been found since the weekend.

The slide area “is so wet and mucky, it’s like a swamp,” Hots said. “If we were to try to put big machinery out there, we’d lose it. It would disappear in the muck.” But asked whether the search was now a recovery mission rather than a rescue, he said, “My heart is telling me that I’m not giving up yet.”

“My philosophy is even if we say this is just a recovery mission, we’re still going at it full steam ahead,” he added.

The area affected in the most recent calamity has been hit before, in 1951, 1967, 1988 and 2006. Daniel Miller, a geomorphologist who co-wrote a report in 1999 for the Army Corps of Engineers that looked at options to reduce sediments from area landslides, said that none of these events resulted in deaths, though at least the most recent one damaged houses.

This history, along with erosion from Stillaguamish River and worries about overlogging, prompted some mitigation and other efforts. A 2010 plan identified the area swept away as one of several “hot spots,” John Pennington, Snohomish County’s emergency management director, told reporters Wednesday.

The county had been saturated by “amazing” rains for weeks on end that made the ground even less stable, Pennington added. Then there was a small, recent earthquake that may or may not have shaken things up more.

But he said no one anticipated an event of the scale of what happened Saturday morning: “Sometimes, big events just happen.” And he said residents knew the area was “landslide-prone” — an assertion one of them challenged.

“Nobody ever told us that there were geology reports,” Robin Youngblood told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “… This is criminal, as far as I’m concerned.”

With more rain in the forecast Thursday and Friday, Snohomish County Public Works Director Steve Thompson said rescuers are working with one eye on the weather.

“Right now there’s no risk of further slides, but we’re watching the rain,” Thompson said Thursday.

CNN’s Ana Cabrera contributed to this report.