ARLINGTON — Rescuers say at least 18 people are missing in a massive mudslide that demolished two neighborhoods along the north fork of the Stillaguamish River and that the potential for a catastrophic flash flood remains high.
Three people were killed and at least eight others injured when a rain-soaked hillside above state Highway 530 near Oso gave way Saturday morning. Travis Hots, chief of Snohomish County Fire districts 21 and 22, said a square-mile of mud and debris slid across the road, blocked the river and demolished or damaged up to 30 homes.
He said the number of missing is “fluid” and that there may have been vehicles on the road that were swept away that rescuers don’t know about.
“We suspect there are people out there but it is far too dangerous to get the responders out to them,” Hots said during a media briefing outside the incident command center in Arlington.
Hots described an incredibly dangerous situation for the more than 100 rescuers who are trying to access buried structures and debris. The mud is still moving and has the consistency of quicksand. He said the scene overnight was eerie with the sounds of breaking timber and moving debris in the dark.
Rescuers late Saturday failed to find people they heard yelling from a buried structures, Hots said. By the time they were able to negotiate the shifting mud and debris and get to the area, the voices had gone quiet, he said.
“There were signs of life in a buried structure. We were not able to get there, and when we were able to get close, they could not longer hear anything so they backed out,” Hots explained.
Hots described the scene Sunday as a “domino game” where the slide has set up a potential both for flooding downstream, but upstream as well as the water continues to back up behind the massive mud flow.
One neighborhood, along Steelhead Drive, “is not there anymore,” said Hots.
He said officials believe victims remain under the mud, but rescuers have to move with caution.
Hots compared the scene to video of the destruction left by the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980.
“This is substantial,” he said.
Marcus Deyerin, a spokesman with the Northwest Washington Incident Management Team, said rescue crews are only able to enter the mudslide muck if aerial crews see evidence of survivors. He said the rescuers who have entered the area have become mired in the mud.
“It’s like quicksand,” he said, echoing Hots.
Deyerin said officials were still gathering info on how many homes were impacted, but he estimated it to be in the range of 20 to 30.