Washington mudslide toll: Why tallying victims takes so long

A week after a massive landslide in Washington State, the search for victims is frustratingly slow. Half the community of 180 people remain unaccounted for, and some may never be found.

Elaine Thompson/AP
With a map of the deadly mudslide behind him, Snohomish County District 21 Fire Chief Travis Hots addresses a news conference Friday in Arlington, Wash. The death toll from the mudslide in nearby Oso, Wash., is expected to rise considerably within days.

A week after a steep, rain-soaked hillside came crashing down across the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River and Washington State highway 530, all but wiping out the small community of Oso in a thundering fury of mud, boulders, and uprooted trees, the tally of victims is frustratingly slow in coming.

The tight-knit community numbered about 180 people, many of them in extended families. For days now, the number of missing and accounted for has stood at half that figure. And as the hours and days pass, it’s become increasingly clear that rescue efforts have turned into a recovery operation.

"We always want to hold out hope but I think we have to at some point expect the worst," Snohomish County Executive Director Gary Haakenson told a news conference Friday evening after being asked if many of the 90 people listed as missing were now feared dead.

And yet the number of identified victims hasn’t changed in several days: 17 with another 10 individuals found but yet to be transported to the medical examiner’s office.

"The crews are finding bodies in the field. It's a very slow process. It was miserable to begin with. As you all know, it's rained heavily the last few days. It's made the quicksand even worse," Mr. Haakenson said. More rain and winds up to 20 knots brought a National Weather Service warning of possible flooding through Monday.

Regular updates on the Snohomish County website describe the enormity of the task. The latest reads:

“On the west side of the slide, six task forces were created to optimize efforts in the field. Each consists of the following: three technical rescuers, one Hazardous Materials unit, one K-9 unit, a chainsaw operator and a spotter, one medical unit, five volunteers, five members of the National Guard and an excavator…. Hypothermia and dehydration are starting to impact the searchers in the field. Fatigue and stress are also setting in. Efforts are being made to protect the health of those working in the landslide area.”

As the days wore on, Travis Hots, the young Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief and principal spokesman for search and recovery efforts, wore the face of that fatigue and stress. He was told to go home and rest a while, but spent the day with searchers.

“You just can’t fathom what we’re up against out there until you get out there and see the lay of the land,” he said at a news conference Friday. “You can’t look at a photograph and understand it. You can’t even fully understand what we’re up against out there and what has happened even if you watch on TV. It’s unreal.”

At some point later, scientists and officials will look for causes of the massive slide – one of the largest to hit an inhabited area in US history – and review the way professionals and volunteers have handled the search, rescue, and recovery effort.

Some experts suggest that clear-cut logging in the area over the years added to the instability of the slope, which had experienced a series of lesser slides.

But for now, the focus is on a community hit by what is likely to grow to unimaginable tragedy as the number of those lost inevitably mounts. Given the many tons of hillside that crushed and mixed everything in its path, officials say, the remains of some victims may never be identified or even found.

"That's going to be hallowed ground out there," Ron Brown, a Snohomish County official, told Reuters. At a community meeting Friday, John Farmer suggested that the area should not be rebuilt but turned into a memorial to those lost.

"The number is so big and it's so negative. It's hard to grasp," said search volunteer Bob Michajla. "These are all friends and neighbors and family. Everybody knows everybody in this valley."

The stories emerging from tragedy are heart-breaking. The woman who lost both her four-month-old daughter and her mother. The search volunteer who found his sister buried in her car. The older man who crawled out of the mud and debris, unable to save his wife, a retired librarian. Three generations of the extended Ruthven family, missing or confirmed dead.

Community members have set up a Facebook page for exchanging information and offering support. Washington Governor Jay Inslee has called for a moment of silence Saturday at 10:37 a.m. local time, the moment when the mudslide hit Oso on March 22.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.