Desperate search in Washington state for scores missing after deadly mudslide

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 March, 2014, 11:28pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 March, 2014, 3:34am

As the search for survivors of a destructive mudslide in the US northwest grew to include 176 people still unaccounted for, the number known to have died when the wall of trees, rock and debris swept through a rural community rose to at least 14.

In the struggle to find loved ones, relatives and neighbours in a river valley in Washington state used chainsaws and their bare hands to pick through wreckage that was tangled by the mud into piles of filthy debris.

Late on Monday, the list of potentially missing people rose sharply following the disaster on Saturday about 90 kilometres northeast of Seattle. But Snohomish County emergency management director John Pennington stressed that authorities believed the number included many duplicate names.

"The 176, I believe very strongly is not a number we're going to see in fatalities. I believe it's going to drop dramatically," he said.

The number of those possibly missing grew from an estimated 108 earlier on Monday.

Pennington said the list was compiled from information provided by the public, and officials were trying to cross off reports that likely described the same person. The list included construction workers who were working in the area and people just driving by.

Authorities also predicted that the number of missing would decline as more people were found to be safe.

The lack of definitive information two days after the massive 1.5 kilometre-wide mudslide destroyed a cluster of homes at the bottom of the valley ratcheted up anxieties.

"The situation is very grim," Snohomish county fire district 21 chief Travis Hots said. While he stressed that authorities were still in rescue mode and were holding out hope, he noted: "We have not found anyone alive on this pile since Saturday."

Snohomish county sheriff spokeswoman Shari Ireton said on Monday afternoon that search and rescue crews had discovered an additional six bodies, bringing the number of fatalities to at least 14. The slide critically injured several others. About two dozen homes were flattened, and the debris blocked a 1.5 kilometre-long stretch of state highway near Arlington.