US mudslide death toll rises

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iol pic wld_USA-MUDSLIDE-WASHINGTONSTATE_0324_11 REUTERS A landslide and structural debris blocks Highway 530 near Oso, Washington. Picture: Lindsey Wasson

Arlington, Washington -

Searchers found another body on Sunday in the debris from a massive landslide in northwestern Washington state, bringing the death toll to at least four from the wall of mud and debris that completely destroyed a small riverside neighbourhood in northwestern Washington state.

At least 18 people remained missing, though authorities warned that number could grow.

Crews were able to get out to the muddy, tree-strewn area after geologists few over in a helicopter and determined it was safe enough for emergency responders and technical rescue personnel to search for possible survivors, said Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots.

“We didn't see or hear any signs of life out there today,” he said.

Despite that, Hots said crews were still in a “search and rescue mode. It has not gone to a recovery mode at this time.”

He said the search would continue until nightfall, when conditions would become too dangerous.

Several people, including an infant, were critically injured in the mudslide that hit on Saturday morning about 88 kilometres north of Seattle. About 30 homes were destroyed.

As crews searched the quicksand-like mud below, concerns remained about a blocked river in the area that threatened to flood homes.

Rescuers' hopes of finding more survivors had been buoyed late on Saturday when they heard people yelling for help from within the debris field, but they were unable to reach anyone. The mud was so thick and deep that searchers had to turn back.

“We have this huge square-mile mudflow that's basically like quicksand, it's extremely fluid,” Hots said.

The slide wiped through what neighbours described as a former fishing village of small homes - some nearly 100 years old. The neighbourhood “is not there anymore,” Hots said.

Some of the missing may have been able to get out on their own, authorities said. The number unaccounted for could change because some people may have been in cars and on roads when the slide hit, Hots said.

Officials described the mudslide as “a big wall of mud and debris.” It was reported about 18 meters deep in some areas.

Authorities believe the slide was caused by ground made unstable by recent heavy rainfall.

The slide blocked the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River. With the water rising rapidly behind the debris, authorities worried about downstream flooding and issued an evacuation notice on Saturday. The water had begun to seep through the blockage on Sunday afternoon.

Snohomish County officials said on Sunday that residents could return home during daylight hours, but that they'll likely re-issue the evacuation order on Sunday night.

John Pennington, director of Snohomish County Emergency Management Department, said there were concerns that the water could break downstream, as well as back up and flood areas upstream.

Shari Ireton, a spokeswoman for the Snohomish County sheriff's office, said on Sunday that a total of eight people were injured in the slide.

A 6-month-old boy and an 81-year-old man remained in critical condition on Sunday morning at Harborview Medical Centre in Seattle. Hospital spokeswoman Susan Gregg said two men, ages 37 and 58, were in serious condition, while a 25-year-old woman was upgraded to satisfactory condition.

Bruce Blacker, who lives just west of the slide, doesn't know the whereabouts of six neighbours.

“It's a very close knit community,” Blacker said as he waited at an Arlington roadblock before troopers let him through. There were almost 20 homes in the neighbourhood that was destroyed, he said. - Sapa-AP


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