Of all the descriptions offered of the debris field confronting rescuers at the site of the Oso-area mudslide, Washington National Guard Capt. Brad Sanders’ was perhaps the most apt:
“So if you could imagine houses, trees and a bunch of mud put in a blender and run through a bit and dumped back on the ground, that’s what it is,” said Sanders, a member of a team of 15 National Guardsmen assisting the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office in the search for bodies.
Their assignment is to slowly walk through the debris field, sift through the wreckage and look for signs of a victim. Once they find remains, they mark the location with GPS and alert incident commanders, who can call in search dogs and additional teams.
It’s slow, methodical and taxing work, according to Sanders.
The National Guard is part of a small army of people scouring the slide zone Thursday under what has been described as the worst of conditions.
Authorities expect the official death toll to rise from the current count of 16 confirmed by the end of the day’s search. At the start of the day, there were another nine bodies that had yet to be recovered and not included in the official count.
Travis Hots, chief of Snohomish County Fire District 21/22, said during a morning briefing that within the next 24 to 48 hours “you’re going to see these numbers increase substantially” as medical examiners work to catch up with the bodies that have been rescued from the mud. Officials have previously said there are nine bodies that haven’t been so far added to the death count.
‘The number of fatalities total is 16, that’s it,” he said. “That number is going to go up shortly.”
The number of people unaccounted for after the Saturday mudslide remains at 90, down from the earlier estimate of 176.
Authorities say there are an additional 35 people who may have been in the area and whose status “is still unknown at this time.”
The catastrophic mudslide near Oso is not as big in terms of size as disasters such as the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, Hurricane Katrina or the Oklahoma City bombing, but it’s “every bit as complex as any of those,” said Tom Miner, head of the FEMA team in charge of urban search and rescue that’s helping find the victims.
Miner, who said that he has helped in search-and-rescue operations in each of those incidents, added that the number of missing people is “quite high.” It’s also unlikely that all the bodies will be recovered by emergency responders, he said.
“I’ve been doing that for 30 years,” he said. “there’s no 100 percent” recovery rate, he said.
Responders are still operating in “rescue” mode, under the assumption that they can still find survivors. But “discussions are being had” about when the operation should switch to “recovery” mode, Miner said.
Responders also help family members of the victims deal with the loss of their loved ones. Immediate family members are being taken to the scene of the disaster. “It was not a huge number,” Miner said. It “gives them a better understanding of the scope, the magnitude” of the disaster and the tremendous effort of the recovery, he added.
Miner’s team was mobilized at 1 p.m. Monday. He was in the area by 5 p.m. that day.
When asked whether local authorities should have called in extra support sooner, Miner said that response to the Oso tragedy has “flowed exactly like any other disaster I’ve ever seen.”
He said it usually takes a day for local responders to grasp the magnitude of the catastrophe; then another day to make decisions about what can be done, and a third day to request and start receiving external resources.
“We hit the ground running,” Miner said, adding that local authorities had an elaborate plan that allowed them to easily integrate into the existing command structure.
“They knew what they wanted” and had a plan, he said. “That doesn’t always happen. In this case it happened”
Hots, the fire chief, described the physically and emotionally grueling work of recovering the victims. He said he was at the scene on Wednesday when crews were recovering someone who had been trapped in a car. The victim had been driving down state highway 530 and the force of the mudslide pushed the car 200 feet from the pavement. Crews removed the top of the car with tools and equipment they had hauled through the swamp-like mud, amid “clay balls the size of ambulances.”
“They work, they work and they work,” Hots said, adding that tools tend to get jammed with mud. “They just kept digging. They just didn’t stop until that person was removed.”
When the victim was finally extracted from the vehicle, “it got somber out there. You could almost hear a pin drop. It’s the rescuers’ way of paying respect to the deceased,” Hots said.
Steve Mason, battalion chief for Snohomish County Fire District 1, led media representatives on a tour of the site on this morning.
“They’re in waist-deep mud at some times,” he said. “They’re very dirty and exhausted. It’s very hard to be methodical in this situation.”
Mason explained that the teams cut into a house with heavy equipment, “then you step back a bit and check the outer perimeter.” Then, he said, “the machine goes in and takes a small bite and you look through that very carefully.”
Mason says searchers have been sorting through debris, creating “slash” piles of natural materials and “rubble” or “debris” piles of material they cannot leave because it’s not good for the environment.
“There’s millions of cubic feet of stuff out there. It’s a slow process,” he said.
He said about 1oo family members of the dead and missing are helping with the search.
Steve Thomsen, public works director for Snohomish County, said this morning that an analysis by several groups does not indicate a risk of another slide, but if the rain increases that risk, crews will be pulled back for their safety.
“The slide is stable right now,” Thomsen said. He said geologists from across the nation and Canada are monitoring the land.
Expected rain, however, may make operations difficult on areas that had dried up in past days, Hots added.
Hots said the search dogs are struggling to find bodies because the muck is so thick. The scent does not always rise in a straight line from a victim’s location, and may come up to 40 feet away, Hots said.
More than 200 people, including volunteers, are working on the rescue and recovery effort. Some crew members are starting to get tired, so “we’re going to start cycling new crews that are fresh,” Hots said.
The disaster scene, 25 miles east of Arlington, has been compared to the damage left behind by the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, where 57 people were killed.
The state’s deadliest natural disaster occurred on March 1, 1910, when an avalanche swept two passenger trains down a ravine near Stevens Pass, killing 96.
— Information from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report