Woes mount after deadly Washington landslide

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ARLINGTON, Wash. -- Searchers found another body Sunday in the tangled sludge of a massive landslide in rural Washington state, bringing the death toll to at least four from the wall of debris that swept through a small riverside neighborhood.

At least 18 people remained missing, though authorities warned that number could grow. Late Saturday, rescuers heard cries for help, and a day later, they heard nothing.

The 1-square-mile mudslide that struck Saturday morning also critically injured several people and destroyed about 30 homes.

Crews were able to get to the muddy, tree-strewn area after geologists flew over in a helicopter and determined it was safe enough for emergency responders and technical rescue personnel to search for possible survivors, Chief Travis Hots of Snohomish County Fire District 21 said Sunday evening. They found the body buried in the mud.

"We didn't see or hear any signs of life out there today," he said, adding that they did not search the entire debris field, only drier areas safe to traverse.

Despite that, Chief Hots said crews were still in a "search and rescue mode. It has not gone to a recovery mode at this time."

He said the search would continue until nightfall, at which time conditions become too dangerous.

Before crews could get onto the debris field late Sunday morning, they looked for signs of life by helicopter. Authorities initially said it was too dangerous to send rescuers out on foot.

Rescuers' hopes of finding more survivors were buoyed late Saturday when they heard people yelling for help, but they were unable to reach anyone. The soupy mud was so thick and deep that searchers had to turn back.

"We have this huge square-mile mudflow that's basically like quicksand," Chief Hots said Sunday.

The slide wiped through what neighbors described as a former fishing village of small homes -- some nearly 100 years old.

As the search for the missing continued, authorities said some may have been able to get out on their own. The number unaccounted for could change because some people may have been in cars and on roads when the slide hit just before 11 a.m. Saturday, Chief Hots said.

Officials described the mudslide as "a big wall of mud and debris." It blocked about a mile of State Route 530 near the town of Oso, about 55 miles north of Seattle. It was reported to be about 15 feet deep in some areas.

Authorities believe the slide was caused by ground made unstable by recent heavy rainfall.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee described the scene as "a square mile of total devastation" after flying over the disaster area midday Sunday. He assured families that everything was being done to find their missing loved ones.

"There is a full scale, 100 percent aggressive rescue going on right now," said Mr. Inslee, who proclaimed a state of emergency.

The slide blocked the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River. With the water pooling behind the debris, authorities worried about downstream flooding and issued an evacuation notice Saturday. The water had begun to seep through the blockage Sunday afternoon, alleviating some concerns.

Snohomish County officials said Sunday that residents could return home during daylight hours. Even though the evacuation had been lifted, Mr. Inslee urged residents to remain alert.

The National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch for Snohomish County through this afternoon.


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