Landslide Leaves Families Waiting for Death

With bodies recovered from the landslide but no names released, the town of Oso hopes for the best and anticipates the worst.

Rick Wilking/Reuters

On the fifth day after a tremendous mudslide buried a portion of a village nestled in the bottom of a picturesque western Washington river valley, anxious residents received sobering news.

The list of the missing—which had once been as high as 220 and on Tuesday sat at 176—has been definitively reduced to 90 names. Another list includes 35 names about which “we just don’t know,” said a Snohomish County official at a press briefing Wednesday evening.

Authorities had all along predicted the numbers of those trapped in the mud would shrink as phone and Internet connections were restored to homes in the nearby community of Darrington, about 15 miles east of the stricken town of Oso.

The bodies of 16 additional people have already been publicly identified and the remains of eight more were expected to be lifted out by helicopter Wednesday and taken to a medical examiner, after which their names will be released.

But without all the names of the missing, the true toll of the disaster can’t truly begin to be calculated.

Photos: Without Warning Mudslide Covers Washington Town

“People that we think are safe, might not be. We don’t know,” said a frustrated patron at a tavern in Arlington, where widescreen televisions are tuned to the news and pretty much everyone has lost someone, if not dozens of someone’s, in the landslide that struck late Saturday morning.

Search and rescue efforts have been hampered by the sheer volume of the viscous mud and rubble, and by fears that another slide could come at any moment, endangering would-be rescuers.

Some locals, frantic to help find trapped family members, said that early in the search effort they ignored threats that they would be tasered by authorities guarding the treacherous perimeter. Others reportedly rammed a truck through a fence to get past authorities and to the mudslide and start digging.

Now, cooperation has been established and federal crews and the National Guard, state and county workers are being paired with determined local volunteers, said a Seattle firefighter, part of a helicopter crew on stand-by Wednesday morning.

In addition to those that are still missing or confirmed dead, authorities have said that at least seven people were injured in the landslide. CNN reported that a Seattle hospital harbors at least five people who are still recovering, including “a 22-week-old boy who was critical but "improving," two men, ages 37 and 81, in serious condition in intensive care, and two others listed in satisfactory condition.”

Meanwhile this fiercely loyal community has kicked into high gear, hosting impromptu fundraisers and food drives for survivors, many of which are now homeless and holed up at a Red Cross shelter at an Arlington Middle School, with others on the other side of the slide in Darrington.

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People came and kept coming to the parking lot of the Food Pavillion grocery in Arlington Wednesday, filling at least two trucks with boxes of food and supplies and bags of clothes, towels, diapers and blankets.

“They need mustard,” said a volunteer, Maya Roxby, who had just come from the Darrington community center, usually a short drive but because of the blocked road, now two hours away. Volunteers there were hurriedly making sandwiches for survivors and for the tired and hungry search parties.

But the mood in Darrington is bleak, Roxby said.

“They feel stuck and alone, cut off from the world” Roxby said.

While officials have been discouraging more volunteers from coming out to help search, she said many people are still needed to help make food and organize donated supplies.

By Wednesday afternoon, $33,000 had already poured into a fund set up at an area hospital, coffee shops and restaurants were donating all of the day’s proceeds to survivor funds, and supportive T-shirts began appearing (“Oso Much Hope” read Renai Anderson’s).

“There’s something about this town that embraces the broken,” said Donna Waldal, owner of Save the Day Floral design, who has been inundated with calls to put together baskets of goods to be auctioned off at various fundraisers for the stricken community. She rattled off countless fundraisers in the past to help individual residents struck by misfortune.

Waldal said she could have easily been caught in the slide herself, but for the fact that she wanted to stay in Arlington Saturday morning to watch the opening ceremony for a cancer fundraiser, “Paint the Town Purple,” and so declined an order that would have taken her right into the path of the mudslide.

“If I’d said yes, I wouldn’t be here,” Waldal said.