Washington mudslide’s grim toll: 16 dead, perhaps 176 missing
DARRINGTON, Washington (CNN) — A handful of people were miraculously pulled from the wreckage in Washington right after a mountain of mud rolled over two towns there Saturday. But no one has been found alive since, and the grim toll rises by the day.
At least 16 have been confirmed dead. And on Wednesday, rescuers will work to salvage another eight bodies they believe they have located under rubble of the landslide that covers about a square mile.
At least 176 people are unaccounted for. But officials have stressed that some names of those missing have been duplicated, so there is hope the actual number may be smaller.
Finding them will be toilsome in Oso, with a population of about 180, and Darrington, a town of about 1,350. In some places, the debris is 30 to 40 feet thick.
And it will also be dangerous, since some of the mud has the consistency of quicksand and is filled with the wreckage of nearly 50 structures damaged or destroyed.
President Barack Obama, in the Netherlands on Tuesday, asked that “all Americans to send their thoughts and prayers to Washington state and the community of Oso.”
Obama said he had spoken with Gov. Jay Inslee and signed an emergency declaration.
Nichole Rivera has returned to her hometown of Darrington in hopes that someone will find her loved ones.
But after seeing the wide swath of devastation and the unyielding mud, she has no optimism of ever seeing them alive again.
“I can tell you with great soundness they’re not going to find my parents, or daughter, or her fiancé,” she said.
Now, she and her family just want closure — the bodies of their loved ones, if possible.
But if they don’t turn up, they take comfort in knowing that they will rest in a place that they loved.
Her relatives had plans to put their burial plots on their own land.
The waiting came to an end Tuesday for the family of U.S. Navy Cmdr. John Regelbrugge — at least in part. His brothers found his body and that of his dog.
But his wife, Kris, is still missing.
“They were both home when the slide hit, but they haven’t found her yet,” his sister-in-law Jackie Leighton said.
The miraculous rescues came early on, and some were bittersweet.
Four-year-old Jacob Spillers got out of the wreckage in Oso. He was in an upstairs room, when the mudslide crashed into his home.
His father and three half-siblings are still trapped in the house.
His mother also survived — but only because she was at work, when the wall of earth came.
The landslide trapped Cory Kuntz’ aunt and uncle in the same house. His uncle found an air pocket under the roof and a stick.
He used it to get the attention of neighbors.
“They heard him pounding on that roof,” Kuntz said. “My neighbors and my friends came and started digging him out.”
They couldn’t get to Kuntz’ aunt on time.
Kuntz also lost his home in Oso to the mudslide.
Still, some families of those missing hope for more wonders.
Somewhere in the mud and debris is Bill Welsh.
The last time his wife, Barbara, saw him, he was headed out to help someone in Oso install a water tank early Saturday.
She thinks that if anyone can get through this disaster, it’s the man she’s been married to for 43 years — the man who came home alive from the Vietnam War.
“I believe in him,” Welsh said. “All you can do is keep believing.”
Belief keeps some searchers going as they comb the area with the hopes of finding people alive, Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington said.
“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.
So far, there has been much more hope for survivors than actual survivors.
Rescuers caked with mud return from the search often without answers and with despair on their faces.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t find any signs of life,” Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots told reporters during a briefing Tuesday.
An ambulance brought a child to Robin Youngblood, herself a survivor.
She comforted him but suggested he may be facing a life-altering event.
“I wrapped him up and held him,” she said, “and told him I was a grandma and couldn’t find the rest of his family.”
By Ben Brumfield and George Howell, CNN
CNN’s Ana Cabrera reported from Darrington, Washington, and Ed Payne and Mariano Castillo reported and wrote from Atlanta. George Howell, Chelsea J. Carter, Matt Smith, Ralph Ellis and Janet DiGiacomo contributed to this report.
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