Washington slide death toll 14; scores more still missing

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OSO, Wash. -- The search for survivors of a deadly Washington state mudslide grew Monday to include scores of people who were still unaccounted for as the death toll from the wall of trees, rocks and debris that swept through a rural community rose to at least 14.

In struggling to find loved ones, family members and neighbors used chain saws and their bare hands to dig through wreckage that was tangled by the mud into broken piles.

Authorities said they were looking for more than 100 people who had not been heard from since the disaster about 55 miles northeast of Seattle. They predicted that the number of missing would decline as more people are found safe. But the startling initial length of the list added to the anxieties two days after a 1-mile-wide layer of soft earth crashed onto a cluster of homes at the bottom of a river valley.

"The situation is very grim," Chief Travis Hots of Snohomish County Fire District 21 said, stressing that authorities are still in rescue mode and are holding out hope. But he noted: "We have not found anyone alive on this pile since Saturday."

A Snohomish County sheriff's spokeswoman, Shari Ireton, said Monday afternoon search and rescue crews discovered an additional six bodies, bringing the number of fatalities to at least 14.

About 30 houses were destroyed, and the debris blocked a 1-mile-long stretch of state highway near Arlington.

Cory Kuntz and several volunteers worked Monday with chain saws to cut through the roof of his uncle's house, which was swept about 150 yards from its original location. Mr. Kuntz said his aunt, Linda McPherson, was killed. He and the others pulled out files, his aunt's wallet and a box filled with photos.

"When you look at it, you just kind of go in shock, and you kind of go numb," he said, adding that there were more people out helping Sunday. On Monday, they couldn't get through roadblocks.

"They are all eager to get down here, but unfortunately they can't. It just shows how tight this community is," he said.

The mudslide struck Saturday morning, a time when most people are at home. Of the 49 structures in the neighborhood, authorities believe at least 25 were full-time residences.

Frustrations were growing as family members and neighbors waited for official word on the missing and the dead. Elaine Young and her neighbors uncovered several bodies Sunday and had to contact authorities to get them removed.

They also found a chocolate Labrador named Buddy alive, and helped pull the dog from the rubble, leading her to wonder if other survivors could be out there, desperate for help.

Authorities believe Saturday's slide was caused by recent heavy rains that made the terrain unstable.

From the beginning, rescue crews have faced dangerous and unpredictable conditions as they navigated quicksand-like mud that was 15 feet deep in some places. Some who went in got caught up to their armpits in the thick, sticky sludge.

The threat of potential flash floods or another landslide also loomed over rescuers. On Monday, some crews had to pull back because of concern that a hillside could shift.

Among the injured were a mother and her baby. Amanda Skorjanc, 25, was in satisfactory condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, spokeswoman Susan Gregg said. Her son, 22-week-old Duke Suddarth, remained in critical condition and was improving, Ms. Gregg said. Three men were in serious condition.

Snohomish County's emergency management director, John Pennington, said the list of 108 missing people included construction workers who were working in the area and people just driving by. But, he cautioned, that does not necessarily mean there are dozens of additional fatalities. The slide blocked the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River, which is continuing to back up, officials said. Frequent, heavy rain and steep geography make the area prone to landslides. Less than a decade ago, another slide hit in the same general area.


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