ARLINGTON, Washington — Volunteers and National Guardsmen said the initial rescue operation to save hundreds of lives following a massive landslide Saturday was needlessly delayed.
Rescue workers recovered two bodies Tuesday, bringing the official death toll to 16 in a massive landslide that buried the village of Oso, 60 miles outside Seattle.
Still unaccounted for are 176 people whose names have appeared on a list of the missing, though officials say they think the list may be inflated, and as more names are verified they expect it to shrink.
“Why was it that for two days they didn’t let anybody in to search?” said an Oso firefighter who wishes to remain anonymous. The firefighter referenced initial limits on access to the disaster site, which some people defied, risking arrest, in order to look for their loved ones.
“How come most of the people who’ve been found were found by people who weren’t supposed to be there?” he said.
Three National Guard volunteers stationed in the region independently vented frustrations on Tuesday evening. The men were initially going to be deployed to the area, and were then told to “stand down,” they said.
“We got mad, and came out anyway,” said one volunteer, who also declined to give his name. “We’re here on our own.”
Authorities coordinating the rescue response had to weigh intense concerns about locating survivors in the rubble against a responsibility for the safety of the searchers and questions about whether another landslide was imminent.
Crews are using sonar, cameras, microphones, and trained dogs to try to detect signs of life, but no one has been found alive in the rubble since the first few hours after the slide hit at a little after 11 a.m. Saturday morning.
After a month of unusually heavy rains, a hilltop above Oso, population 180, came loose and slid to the bottom of the Stillaguamish River valley, engulfing a square mile of land, a portion of river, and 49 homes.
Questions have arisen about what was known about the danger posed by the unstable hillside, particularly after John Pennington, head of Snohomish County’s Department of Emergency Management said at a news conference that the slide was “completely unforeseen” and “came out of nowhere,” and that the area was considered “very safe.”
A smaller landslide had already hit the spot in 2006, as well as many other times in previous decades. A retaining wall erected after the 2006 slide did nothing to stem the force of the drenched earth that plunged down the steep slope Saturday.
The Seattle Times uncovered a 1999 report filed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that singled out the same hillside for having “the potential for a large catastrophic failure.”
The current had been wearing away the bottom of the slope, making a slide inevitable, said authors Daniel and Lynn Rodgers Miller.
“We’ve known it would happen at some point,” the Seattle Times quoted Daniel Miller. “We just didn’t know when.”
Pennington, focusing on rescue efforts says he has not seen the Times report, and that residents “were very aware of the slide potential.”
In this community near the edge of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, many of the hilltops along Highway 530 are barren with red earth showing where the trees have been logged. But the hill in question had last been logged in the 1980s, reported USA Today, citing University of Washington professor David Montgomery.
“There’s no way to know if that contributed to the slide,” said Montgomery.
Rain continued to pelt down on the more than 200 local, state, and federal rescue workers Tuesday, some of whom are working through the night, combing through an opaque slurry of mud and debris, thick and treacherous as quicksand.
The two bodies recovered Tuesday were those of Kris Regelbrugge, and her husband, U.S. Navy Cmdr. L. John Regelbrugge III, who was found by his brothers, reported the Seattle Times, along with his dog. Two of the couples’ five grown children are also helping with the search.
With 200 rescuers already in rotation, officials said repeatedly on Tuesday that they don’t need any more volunteers.
At a news conference Tuesday night officials recounted that vehicle traffic had turned dirt roads to impassable mud, further impeding access, but crews were laying down gravel to remedy the situation.
“We haven’t lost hope there’s a possibility that we could find somebody alive in some pocket area as the days go on,” said Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots at the briefing. “We are coming to the realization that may not be a possibility, but we are going full steam ahead. Even if we said it was a recovery operation, we are still going at this like I indicated earlier on all eight cylinders. We are going at this hard.”
After surveying the disaster site from the air, Governor Jay Inslee said it was “devastation beyond imagination.”
The sheer force of destruction in evidence at the site is shocking, say those who've been to the site. Search crews had expected to be able to find cars and perhaps locate people in them. But what they’re seeing doesn’t leave much hope for survivors.
“These vehicles are just twisted and tore up in pieces,” Pennington said.
Meanwhile, the deluge of rain continues, in fits and starts. In nearby Arlington more than 7 inches has fallen since the beginning of the month, double the average, and another two inches are expected in the coming days.