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More Bodies Recovered From Washington State Mudslide

The massive mudslide that killed more than a dozen people is shown in this aerial photo taken Monday near Arlington, Wash.
Ted S. Warren
The massive mudslide that killed more than a dozen people is shown in this aerial photo taken Monday near Arlington, Wash.

Updated at 9:55 p.m. EDT

Emergency workers recovered two more bodies in the search for survivors after the massive slide near Oso, Wash., bringing the official death toll to 16.

Up to eight more fatalities have been located but not recovered, which would put the total at 24, said Snohomish County Fire Chief Travis Hots at a press conference Tuesday evening.

"We have found no signs of life," Hots said. "That's the disappointing part."

Hots said he considers the search, which now involves more than 200 responders, to be a rescue operation. "That is still our number-one priority out there."

The number missing and unaccounted for is especially fluid today as power is restored to communities and people are able to report by phone and Internet, said Snohomish County Emergence Management chief John Pennington. That number remains at 176, but is still expected to change.

"We had a particularly challenging day today with the rain," Hots said. "That just further complicated things."

He solemnly told reporters that he's never seen destruction of this magnitude.

"These vehicles are just twisted and tore up in pieces," he said. "I saw a car that was just one eighth of a car."

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La Rae deQuilettes (left) is trying to locate her husband, Ron, who is among the missing after a massive mudslide. Their oldest daughter, Ashlee Straub, is at right.
Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU
La Rae deQuilettes (left) is trying to locate her husband, Ron, who is among the missing after a massive mudslide. Their oldest daughter, Ashlee Straub, is at right.

The National Guard was expected to join the search for possible survivors from a massive mudslide over the weekend in rural Washington state that has killed at least 14 people and left scores missing.

Officials say they are working from a list of 176 people who are unaccounted for, but they acknowledge that some of the names might be duplicates. In the hours after the wall of mud came down from the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River on Saturday morning, the number of missing was originally listed as 18. On Monday, officials said the number of missing stood at 108.

"Candidly, the 176 names ... I believe very strongly is not going to be a number that we're going to see in fatalities," says John Pennington, who heads the Snohomish County's Department of Emergency Management.

"I believe it's going to drop dramatically," Pennington said. "But it doesn't make the process any easier."

Reuters says about a dozen workers kept up the search overnight amid dimming hopes for survivors.

About 30 homes were destroyed by the slide near the towns of Oso and Darrington.

President Obama signed a declaration of emergency on Monday. Gov. Jay Inslee said Monday that additional resources would be arriving to help with the rescue efforts.

"Tonight or tomorrow morning, we should have additional search capabilities through the National Guard for our rescue and extraction efforts," he said. "Family members are grieving, trying to focus on finding missing loved ones or working through the process of rebuilding what was lost."

"This is surreal, it's just surreal. I can't believe this is happening," La Rae de Quilettes, whose husband, Ron, is missing, told KPLU's Bellamy Pailthorp.

Pailthorp reports on Morning Edition that on Saturday morning, Ron met a couple at the site of a new house they were building right in the middle of the slide area. All three are now missing.

La Rae said she's still praying and imagining he's somehow alive. She said his cellphone pinged a tower nearby just minutes before the mudslide.

"We're hoping he's like pinned in a closet, somewhere in the mud, but they have air pockets and they're keeping each other going," she said.

A report filed to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1999 highlighting "the potential for a large catastrophic failure" of the hillside in the area was among several warnings issued about the area where the disaster occurred, The Seattle Times reports.

As we reported yesterday, University of Washington geologist David Montgomery thinks three factors are likely to have contributed to the slide:

— Heavy rains in March.

— The hill's "fairly weak, glacial material." It was basically, he says, "a wall of sand and silt that's hundreds of feet tall."

— The river at the bottom of the valley that "has been cutting into the toe of the slope."

Update at 6:47 p.m. ET. Report Warned Of 'Catastrophic Failure':

The Seattle Times reports that in a report filed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers scientists warned of the "potential for a large catastrophic failure," along that hillside.

"We've known it would happen at some point," Daniel J. Miller, one of the authors of the report, told the paper. "We just didn't know when."

Miller said when he returned to the spot in 2006 — weeks after a landslide — he saw new homes being built.

"Frankly, I was shocked that the county permitted any building across from the river," he said. "We've known that it's been failing."

He added: "It's not unknown that this hazard exists."

Update at 12:50 p.m. ET. President: Hope For The Best

President Obama, speaking after a nuclear security summit in the Netherlands, said Americans should "send their thoughts and prayers" to the devastated community.

"We hope for the best, but we recognize this is a tough situation," he said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
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