Grim reality: Some slide victims may not be found

Published on Wednesday, 26 March 2014 19:07 - Written by Brian Skoloff, Associated Press and Lisa Baumann, Associated Press

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DARRINGTON, Wash. (AP) — Becky Bach watches and waits, hoping that search crews find her brother and three other relatives who are missing in Washington state's deadly mudslide.

Doug Massingale waits too, for word about his 4-month-old granddaughter. Searchers were able to identify carpet from the infant's bedroom, but a log jam stood in the way of a more thorough effort to find little Sanoah Huestis, known as "Snowy."

With little hope to cling to, family members of the missing are beginning to confront a grim reality: Their loved ones might never be found, remaining entombed forever inside a mountain of mud that is believed to have claimed more than 20 lives

"It just generates so many questions if they don't find them," Bach said. "I've never known anybody to die in a natural disaster. Do they issue death certificates?"

Search crews using dogs, bulldozers and their bare hands kept slogging through the mess of broken wood and mud again Wednesday, looking for more bodies or anyone who might still be alive nearly five days after a wall of fast-moving earth destroyed a small rural community. But authorities have acknowledged they might have to leave some victims buried.

Wednesday afternoon Washington State Patrol spokesman Bob Calkins said additional remains were found, but authorities would wait to release more specific information Wednesday evening.

Previously, authorities said they believed they had found 24 bodies from the slide that swept through a rural area north of Seattle on Saturday, though not all had been removed from the area.

Dozens of people remain unaccounted for, although that number is expected to go down.

Trying to recover every corpse would be impractical and dangerous.

The debris field is about a square mile and 30 to 40 feet deep in places, with a moon-like surface that includes quicksand-like muck, rain-slickened mud and ice. The terrain is difficult to navigate on foot and makes it treacherous or impossible to bring in heavy equipment.

To make matters worse, the pile is laced with other hazards that include fallen trees, propane and septic tanks, twisted vehicles and countless shards of shattered homes.

"We have to get on with our lives at some point," said Bach, who has spent the past several days in the area in hopes that searchers would find her brother, his wife, her 20-year-old great niece and the young girl's fiance.

The knowledge that some victims could be abandoned to the earth is difficult to accept.

"Realistically ...I honestly don't think they're going to find them alive," Bach said, crying. "But as a family, we're trying to figure out what to do if they find no bodies."

Bach spoke via phone about a wedding the family had planned for summer at the rural home that was destroyed. And how, she wondered, do you plan a funeral without a body? "We'll probably just have a memorial, and if they find the bodies eventually, then we'll deal with that then."

A death certificate, issued by the state, is legal proof that someone has died. Families often need them to settle their affairs. The authority to issue them starts with a county medical examiner or coroner, said Donn Moyer, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Health. If and when it appears there is no chance of finding someone, people can ask the county to start that process.

In previous mudslides, many victims were left where they perished. Mudslides killed thousands in Venezuela in 1999, and about 1,500 bodies were found. But the death toll was estimated at 5,000 to 30,000, so the government declared entire neighborhoods "memorial grounds."

Two Washington National Guard Blackhawk helicopters arrived at the site Wednesday to relieve sheriff's helicopter crews that had been working since Saturday.

The Blackhawks' sole mission is body removal, said Bill Quistorf, chief pilot for the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office.

Other survivors began to grow impatient Wednesday that they weren't allowed to return to the sites of their homes to search for their valuables and keepsakes.

"This isn't right. All of us who are still alive need to have access and find what we can of our lives," said Robin Youngblood, who said her son-in-law was turned away from the slide site.

As families grieved, officials were pressed again Wednesday about warnings from years ago that showed the potential for catastrophic landslides in the area.

In 1999, a draft report by geomorphologist Daniel Miller conducted as part of an ecosystem restoration study highlighted the potential risk of a landslide. That has raised questions about why residents were allowed to build homes in the area and whether the county had taken proper precautions.

Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington said authorities took steps to mitigate risks and warn people of potential dangers, especially after a 2006 landslide in the area. But the sheer size of this disaster was overwhelming.

"It haunts me," a sometimes-emotional Pennington told reporters. "I think we did what we could do. Sometimes large slides happen."

He said the landslide risk has been high this winter due to heavy rains, adding officials will try to learn from this tragedy.

Meanwhile, hundreds of rescuers kept slogging through the muck, following search dogs over the unstable surface of the immense pile.

For the last three days, "the most effective tool has been dogs and just our bare hands and shovels uncovering people," Snohomish County District 21 Fire Chief Travis Hots said. "But the dogs are the ones that are pinpointing a particular area to look, and we're looking and that's how we're finding people."

Massingale said he's grateful that his daughter, Natasha Huestis, survived the slide. She had gone to Arlington that morning and left her baby with her mother, Christina Jefferds. Her husband Seth, a volunteer firefighter, was also away at the time.

"She didn't suffer," Massingale said after he was told about Christina's death.

Massingale said he would miss his first grandchild, a sweet, pretty and smiley child.

"It's stressful to think about," he said. "A little baby that hasn't gotten a start yet in life. It's too much."

Baumann reported from Seattle.

Associated Press writers Phuong Le and Matt Volz in Seattle; P. Solomon Banda in Darrington, Wash.; and photographer Elaine Thompson in Oso, Wash.; and researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.

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