At least eight dead, 108 unaccounted for as mudslide buries community in Washington state, US
At least eight dead, with more missing, as remote fishing community in US northwestis swept away by 18-metre torrent of sludge and debris
Fears were growing yesterday that the death toll in a huge mudslide in the US northwest could rise dramatically after the authorities said 108 people remained missing or unaccounted for.
Local emergency director John Pennington said it did not necessarily mean all the missing had been injured or killed. But he noted the mudslide occurred on a Saturday morning, when more people were likely to be at home.
Several people were also said to have been critically injured by the mudslide, which destroyed about 30 homes.
Officials in Washington state described a "wall of mud and debris" about 18 metres deep in some areas and covering 2.6 square kilometres. They believe it was caused by ground made unstable by recent heavy rainfall. Three people were confirmed dead on Saturday and five more bodies were found on Sunday. Several people, including an infant, were critically injured.
The mudslide devastated the small community on the banks of the Stillaguamish River near the town of Oso, in Snohomish County, about 90 kilometres north of Seattle. Rescue teams were able to venture out into the debris area after geologists flew over it in a helicopter and determined it was safe.
Watch: Deadly landslide in Oso, Washington
Their hopes of finding more survivors were buoyed late on Saturday when they heard people yelling for help from within the debris field. But the crews were unable to reach anyone because the mud was so thick and deep they had to turn back. Some said it was like quicksand. Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots said on Sunday evening: "We didn't see or hear any signs of life out there.
"The person that we found was deceased is still out there and mostly buried in the mud. It's going to take quite a bit of time to get that person out of there." Despite that, Hots said the emergency crews were still in a "search and rescue mode". He added: "It has not gone into a recovery mode at this time."
State Governor Jay Inslee, who flew over the scene in a helicopter, declared it a disaster area and said at a press conference in nearby Darrington: "Mother Nature holds the cards here."
He added: "The destruction was just unrelenting and awesome. There really is no stick standing in the path of the slide."
The mudslide swept through a former fishing village of small homes, some nearly 100 years old. Some of the missing may have been able to get out on their own, authorities said.
The mud blocked the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River. And with the water pooling up behind the debris, authorities concerned about downstream flooding issued an evacuation notice on Saturday. The water had begun to seep through the blockage on Sunday, but Pennington, director of Snohomish County Emergency Management Department, said there were still concerns that the water could break downstream, as well as flood areas upstream.
Shari Ireton, a spokeswoman for the Snohomish County sheriff's office, said a total of eight people were injured. A six-month-old boy and an 81-year-old man remained in critical condition on Sunday at Seattle's Harbourview Medical Centre. Two men aged 37 and 58 were in serious condition, while a 25-year-old woman was in a satisfactory condition.
Medical Centre spokeswoman Elizabeth Hunter described most of the wounds as "crushing injuries". She said: "Basically the people were swept away and pinned up against things, covered in mud."
Additional reporting by McClatchy-Tribune