Washington Town Waits For Mudslide To Stabilize

fromKPLU

Rescue and recovery efforts continue where a massive mudslide killed at least 14 people, with many more missing. Emergency workers in the region are being hampered by still-dangerous conditions.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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A massive mudslide hit the small riverside town of Oso, north of Seattle, Saturday morning, and days later we are still learning about the scale of the devastation. The death toll now stands at 14 with dozens of people still missing.

From members station KPLU in Seattle, Bellamy Pailthorp reports.

BELLAMY PAILTHORP, BYLINE: About two miles west of the disaster area on the north fork of the Stillaguamish River, Doug Dicks stands as a roadblock trying to describe what it was like when a mile-and-a-half wide river of mud suddenly started sliding down the hillside near his home, carrying rocks and trees down with it. He was in his barn listening to music when a screeching sound filled the air.

DOUG DICKS: It sounded like a double twin Huey with the engine being torn into shrapnel. I honestly thought one was crashing and I'm up looking for the explosives.

PAILTHORP: He says the sound went on for several minutes. The slide ended three houses away but he was still evacuated. He was able to go back and take a look on Sunday. He was amazed by how close it came on his neighbor's property.

DICKS: It was just a wall. It's taller than his house - a wall of mud, mud and soil. And the river is just starting to cut through on the far left of the wall and it's aimed right at his house.

PAILTHORP: Now the town is waiting for the slide to stabilize. Authorities say the shifting debris field is like quicksand or wet concrete that's about 15 feet deep. It swept over 49 structures; 25 of those were homes that are occupied full-time. Dicks says the search and rescue teams still trying to find survivors are putting themselves at risk. There are reports that some of the team members got caught in the debris all the way up to their armpits.

DICKS: The looks on the faces when the guys came back was somewhere between shock and terror. The first responders that came up and they came back to tell us to leave, you can tell on their faces something really bad happened.

PAILTHORP: Down the highway in Arlington, an elementary school has been converted into an emergency shelter. In addition to providing beds for evacuees, it's become a gathering place for people in the area who are missing loved ones.

LA RAE DE QUILETTES: It's - this is surreal. It's just surreal. I can't believe this is happening. It's kind of like I'm in a real-life nightmare.

PAILTHORP: La Rae de Quilettes is trying to locate her husband, Ron, of 31 years. He's an electrician. On Saturday morning he met a couple at the side of a new house they were building right in the middle of the slide area. All three are now missing. De Quilettes says she's praying and imagining her husband's still somehow alive. She says he was probably installing light fixtures when the slide hit. His cell phone pinged a tower nearby just minutes before.

QUILETTES: We're hoping he's like pinned in a closet somewhere in the mud. But they have air pockets and they're doing OK and they're keeping each other going.

PAILTHORP: De Quilettes says she's avoiding watching any media right now. But her oldest daughter, Ashley Staub, has become the family's information hub. She's hanging on to the idea that her dad might have gotten into his van and is riding out the slide that way. She's just barely holding it together.

ASHLEY STAUB: The pictures are pretty - pretty bad. Really familiar with the area, so you could tell just how much it's just not there anymore.

PAILTHORP: And they've been getting extra information from her uncle, who is one of the search and rescue volunteers. She says even though it's extremely dangerous, she's grateful he's allowed to take part.

STAUB: Not just to, like, represent our family and also try and be there if they find him. But it's what my dad would be doing too. You know, he's just that type of guy. That's exactly what he would've done. And if he's still there, he's fighting because he's a fighter. And if he's not, then I just hope he's at peace.

PAILTHORP: So far the list of survivors is small compared to the growing number of missing people. Authorities say they've not pulled anyone alive from the wreckage since Saturday. They're now using dogs and heavy equipment to help. And with more rain in the forecast, the National Weather Service predicts their job will only get harder.

For NPR News, I'm Bellamy Pailthorp in Seattle.

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