Number of missing drops in Washington mudslide as rescuers work to recover bodies

Last Updated Mar 26, 2014 10:05 PM EDT

ARLINGTON, Wash. - Authorities in Washington state said on Wednesday that crews had not recovered any additional victims at the site of a massive, deadly landslide, but that the number of missing had dropped dramatically.

Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington said the official death toll remained at 16, with an another eight bodies located but not recovered. Those eight bodies were being brought out later on Wednesday, according to a fire official.

The number of missing or unaccounted for now stands at 90 people with an additional 35 whose status is unknown and may or may not have been in the area, Pennington said.

He acknowledged that not everybody may be located.

"Would I like to see it drop to zero? Yes. Do I think it will? No," he said.

Earlier, authorities had said they were working off a list of 176 people unaccounted for, though some names were believed to be duplicates. That number had varied considerably, rising to more than 200 at one point.

Pennington said Wednesday evening that officials had determined that 140 people who had once been on that list have now been found safe. He said the number of missing or unaccounted for was now "definitively" 90.

Rescuers have been using search and cadaver dogs, small bulldozers and their bare hands to push through sludge strewn with splintered homes and twisted cars.

Hundreds of rescuers and heavy equipment operators slogged through the muck and rain, following the search dogs over the unstable surface of the debris field from Saturday's slide 55 miles northeast of Seattle.
"Going on the last three days the most effective tool has been dogs and just our bare hands and shovels uncovering people," Hots said. "But the dogs are the ones that are pinpointing a particular area to look, and we're looking and that's how we're finding people."

As the search lumbers on, survivors recounted the moment the mudslide happened. Robin Youngblood told CBS News she was with a friend in her home when a 25-foot wall of mud burst through her living room wall.

"We were moving, we were underwater, we were under mud," Youngblood said. "We had mud in our eyes, hair, nose, mouth. Nothing was stable enough to stand on. So I just kept yelling at her to dig herself out, even if it hurt."

Amid the toil and heartbreak, reports have surfaced that warned of the potential for dangerous landslides in the community.

Geologist Dan Miller authored a government study 15 years ago warning that the Oso area was likely to experience a catastrophic mudslide.

"I was surprised that the permits were being given for building in the area," Miller said. "I thought it was a stupid thing to do and I still believe that's true."

Youngblood agrees, but insists she was never warned.

"That whole mountain is unstable," Youngblood said. "I only bought the house two years ago. Nobody forewarned me. Nobody told any of us as far as I know."

Pennington has said residents in Oso knew the area could be dangerous.

"The homeowners in this community and throughout Snohomish County were very well aware of the slide potential," Pennington said Tuesday.


A 2010 report commissioned by Snohomish County to comply with a federal law warned that neighborhoods along the Stillaguamish River were among the highest-risk areas, The Seattle Times has reported.

The hillside that collapsed Saturday outside of the community of Oso was one highlighted as particularly dangerous, said the report by California-based engineering and architecture firm Tetra Tech.

"For someone to say that this plan did not warn that this was a risk is a falsity," said report author and Tetra Tech program manager Rob Flaner.

A year after George Miller's 1999 report, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers warned in another study that lives would be at risk if the hillside collapsed, The Daily Herald of Everett reported.

Residents and county officials were focused on flood prevention, even after a 2006 landslide that did not reach any homes.

"We were just trying to stabilize the river so we could save the community from additional flooding," said Steve Thomsen, the county's public works director.

In fact, the area has long been known as the "Hazel Landslide" because of landslides over the past half-century. The last major one before Saturday's disaster was in 2006.

"We've done everything we could to protect them," Pennington said.

Steven Swanson, 66, lived in the slide area for several years in the 1980s before moving down the road to Darrington.

"I've been told by some of the old-timers that one of these days that hill was going to slide down," said Swanson, who now lives in Northport in northeast Washington. "County officials never said anything to me about it while I lived it there, just the old-timers who grew up there."

Predicting landslides is difficult, according to a study published by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2012. One challenge is estimating the probability of a slide in any particular place.

Homeowners insurance typically does not cover landslide damage, but customers can purchase such coverage, said Karl Newman, president of the NW Insurance Council, a trade group in the Northwest.

One of the authors of the USGS report, Jonathan Godt, a research scientist with the agency in Colorado, said landslides don't get that much attention because they often happen in places where they don't hit anything.

But with Americans building homes deeper into the wilderness, he said, "there are more people in the way."