Hope for survivors of landslide dims as death toll rises as high as 24

Posted at 2:35 PM, Mar 25, 2014
By Ed Payne, Ana Cabrera and Mariano Castillo


DARRINGTON, Washington (CNN) — Brenda Neal was still at the firehouse at midnight, watching as rescuers caked with mud returned from the search for survivors of a massive landslide in rural Washington state.

But they had no answers for her about her missing husband, Steven.

There was despair on their faces, she said.

Rescuers on Tuesday continued to battle debris and mud — with the consistency of quicksand in some places — in the search for survivors, but hopes dimmed as news broke that more bodies were found.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t find any signs of life,” Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots told reporters during a briefing.

The number of dead climbed to as high as 24 with the recovery Tuesday of two more bodies and another eight believed to have been located in the debris.

Authorities did not immediately release the identities of the dead nor did they provide details about where the bodies were found.

At least 176 people are unaccounted for. Officials have stressed those unaccounted for are not necessarily all victims of the disaster. They say they believe many names have been duplicated.

Three sheriff’s deputies who specialize in missing persons cases have begun reviewing the lists to get a more accurate count, Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington said.

Steven Neal’s family holds out hope, despite discouraging signs.

Neal is a plumber who was on a service call in the area where the landslide hit.

“None of us feel like he’s gone,” Brenda Neal said.

Her daughter, Sara, agreed: “I think if anyone had a chance to getting through, it would be him.”

The waiting came to end Tuesday for the family of U.S. Navy Cmdr. John Regelbrugge, 49, whose body and that of his dog were found by his brothers, his sister-in-law, Jackie Leighton, told CNN. Still missing is Regelbrugge’s wife, she said.

On Monday, search efforts yielded a grim result — six bodies.

But searchers still are going through the area with the hopes of making rescues, Pennington said earlier Tuesday morning.

“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.

The landslide covered about a square mile and was caused by groundwater saturation tied to heavy rain in the area over the past month. It affected Oso, with a population of about 180, and Darrington, a town of about 1,350.

Authorities have been warning the search area remains unstable

A volunteer rescue worker was injured Tuesday while working in an area where the landslide struck, according to a statement released by the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office. The rescue worker was hit in the head by debris kicked up “in helicopter wash,” it said.

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.

Early hopeful signs, such as the rescue of a 4-year-old boy on the day of the landslide, have faded for some.

A survivor, Robin Youngblood, cared for the rescued boy immediately after he was pulled out.

“They brought him to us in the ambulance. I took all his clothes off because he was freezing,” she told CNN affiliate KCPQ-TV.

She comforted him but suggested he may be facing a life-altering event.

“I wrapped him up and held him and told him I was a grandma and couldn’t find the rest of his family,” she said.

More and more stories of those unaccounted for continue to emerge.

Nicole Webb Rivera is missing her parents, her daughter and her daughter’s fiance.

The last communication Rivera had with them was a Facebook comment that her daughter posted Saturday morning.

When she was unable to reach them, she knew her worst fear was realized. She says she believes her daughter and her fiance were at the home of Rivera’s parents in Darrington.

“This is catastrophic for our community and all of us who are waiting for word on our family members,” Rivera told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “It’s such beyond the scope of my four missing family members. It’s grief for our whole town.”

Some 49 structures were affected or destroyed by the landslide, Pennington told CNN.

Geologists said the area affected by the slide is not unstable, but rescuers face great challenges.

“The best analogy, I think, is a microcosm of Mount St. Helens,” Pennington said. “This went down, it went hard, it went fast, and the debris is deep.”

Peering across the devastated landscape, Cory Kuntz just shook his head.

“When you look at it, you just get in shock,” he told CNN affiliate KING-TV. “You kind of go numb.”

Kuntz lost his aunt and his home in Oso.

Thanks to the efforts of friends and neighbors, his uncle was rescued, though he was nearly buried alive.

“They heard him pounding on that roof. He had a little air pocket and a stick. He said he was poking up on it, banging on it,” Kuntz said. “My neighbors and my friends came and started digging him out and just couldn’t get to my aunt in time.”

The first reports of the landslide came in about 10:45 a.m. Saturday (1:45 p.m. ET), the sheriff’s office said.

Geologist Dave Norman said the landslide was about 4,400 feet wide with a wide debris field. In some places, the debris is 30 to 40 feet thick.

“This is one of the biggest landslides I have ever seen,” Norman said.

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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