Hope for survivors of Washington landslide dims as list of victims grows
Brenda Neal was still at the fire house at midnight, watching as rescuers caked with mud returned from the search for survivors of a massive landslide in rural Washington state.
But they had no answers for her about her missing husband, Steven.
There was despair on their faces, she said.
Rescuers on Tuesday continued to battle mud and debris — with the consistency of quicksand in some places — in the search for survivors, but hopes dimmed as no one has been rescued since the slide on Saturday.
The death toll stood at 14 with 176 others missing or unaccounted for. Officials have stressed those unaccounted for are not necessarily all victims of the disaster. They believe many names are duplicated.
Steven Neal’s family holds out hope, despite discouraging signs.
Neal is a plumber who was on a service call in the area where the landslide hit.
“None of us feel like he’s gone,” Brenda Neal said.
Her daughter, Sara, agreed: “I think if anyone had a chance to getting through, it would be him.”
Monday’s effort yielded a grim result — six bodies.
“I’m very disappointed to tell you that we didn’t find any sign of any survivors, and we found no survivors today,” Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots told reporters Monday night.
Though chances of finding people trapped alive in the landslide rubble in rural Washington state are dimming, searchers still are going through the area with the hopes of making rescues, Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington said Tuesday morning.
“I believe in miracles, and I believe people can survive these events. They’ve done it before” and they can do it again, he told reporters.
The landslide covered about a square mile and was caused by groundwater saturation tied to heavy rain in the area over the past month. It affected Oso, with a population of about 180, and Darrington, a town of about 1,350.
President Barack Obama, in the Netherlands on Tuesday, asked “all Americans to send their thoughts and prayers to Washington state and the community of Oso.”
Obama said he had spoken with the state’s governor and signed an emergency declaration.
Early hopeful signs, such as the rescue of a 4-year-old boy on the day of the landslide, have faded for some.
A survivor, Robin Youngblood, cared for the rescued boy immediately after he was pulled out.
“They brought him to us in the ambulance. I took all his clothes off because he was freezing,” she told CNN affiliate KCPQ.
She comforted him, but foreshadowed that this could be a life-altering event.
“I wrapped him up and held him and told him I was a grandma and couldn’t find the rest of his family,” she said.
More and more stories of those unaccounted for continue to emerge.
Nicole Webb Rivera is missing her parents, her daughter and her daughter’s fiance.
The last communication Rivera had with them was a Facebook comment that her daughter posted Saturday morning.
When she was unable to reach them, she knew that her worst fear was realized. She believes her daughter and her fiancé were at Rivera’s parents’ home in Darrington.
“This is catastrophic for our community and all of us who are waiting for word on our family members,” Rivera told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “It’s such beyond the scope of my four missing family members. It’s grief for our whole town.”
Some 49 structures were affected or destroyed by the landslide, Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington told CNN.
Geologists say the area affected by the slide is not unstable, but rescuers face great challenges.
“The best analogy, I think, is a microcosm of Mount St. Helens,” Pennington said. “This went down, it went hard, it went fast, and the debris is deep.”
Peering across the devastated landscape, Cory Kuntz just shook his head.
“When you look at it, you just get in shock,” he told CNN affiliate KING. “You kind of go numb.”
Kuntz lost his aunt and his home in Oso.
Thanks to the efforts of friends and neighbors, his uncle’s life was saved, though he was nearly buried alive.
“They heard him pounding on that roof. He had a little air pocket and a stick. He said he was poking up on it, banging on it,” Kuntz said. “My neighbors and my friends came and started digging him out and just couldn’t get to my aunt in time.”
The first reports of the landslide came in about 10:45 a.m. Saturday (1:45 p.m. ET), the sheriff’s office said.
Dave Norman, a Washington state geologist, said the landslide was about 4,400 feet wide with a wide debris field. In some places, the debris is 30 to 40 feet thick.
“This is one of the biggest landslides I have ever seen,” Norman said.
By Mariano Castillo
CNN’s Ed Payne, Matt Smith, Ralph Ellis, Ashley Fantz, Dana Ford and Janet DiGiacomo contributed to this report.