Officials delay increasing death toll in Oso mudslide for one more day

Mar 27, 2014, 5:40 AM | Updated: Mar 28, 2014, 9:36 am

Search and rescue workers use a boat to move around Thursday as they search through mud and debris....

Search and rescue workers use a boat to move around Thursday as they search through mud and debris. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

  • Official death toll remains at 16, but officials say number to be significantly increased as soon as Friday morning briefing.
  • Reports say the body of a missing baby, Sanoah Huestis, was found. She’ll be buried alongside grandma Christina Jefferds.
  • Officials confirm another victim, Stephen A. Neal, 55, of Darrington. Cause was blunt force impact
  • Snohomish County politicians urged President Obama to expedite the latest federal aid request from Gov. Jay Inslee.

Officials say the official death toll in the Oso mudslide will be increased significantly as soon as Friday morning, but for now they are keeping the official number at 16.

Snohomish Fire District 21 chief Travis Hots acknowledged a number of others have been killed in the slide, but said at briefing late Thursday officials want to make sure they are handling the reporting of additional deaths properly.

“There is a very robust, good system that they have in place, partnered with the national guard, to process the fatalities that are coming in, and that number is likely to change very, very much tomorrow morning,” he said.

The number of people reported missing remained at 90. Officials are exploring the legality of releasing the names to the public, said Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington.

“If we are able to release that, then my call as director would be that we begin the process of looking at the sensitivities and maybe helping to solve the puzzles of where some of these individuals may be,” he said.

If you know of someone missing, please call the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office tip line (425)388-3845.

The victims

Officials say at least nine more bodies had been found as of Wednesday night. The medical examiner’s office has so far formally identified only two victims, 45-year-old Christina Jefferds, and Stephen A. Neal, 55, of Darrington. But family members have confirmed a handful of other fatalities to news organizations.

The body of Jefferds’ granddaughter, 4-month-old Sanoah Huestis, was found Thursday, said Dale Petersen, the girl’s great-uncle.

Petersen said he arrived on the scene to help look for survivors to find that work had stopped. A firefighter informed him and others that the infant had been found, Petersen said.

He said the news provides closure for the family.

“We spent a lot of time together,” he said of the baby girl.

The conditions

Search teams are describing horrific conditions as they wade through the widespread debris field at the Oso mudslide.

“If you could imagine houses, trees, and a bunch of mud put into a blender, run for a bit, and then dumped back on the ground,” said National Guard Master Sgt. Chris Martin. “It’s absolutely devastating.”

He and Senior Airman Charlotte Gibson are part of the Search and Rescue Extraction Team.

“It’s almost impossible. You’ll fall in waist deep or knee deep in some areas… we just keep pushing on as slowly and meticulously as we can so we don’t miss anything,” said Gibson.

The pair explained when they discover human remains, they’ll use GPS to mark the location and then call the command center, which will send a dog or other support.

“You start with how many people are there, how many people aren’t there and that’s your base number,” explained Tom Miner with FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue Team. “And then there’s the unknown of how many people were in there that we don’t know anything about. Will you ever get an accurate number? It took us weeks to get an accurate number in Oklahoma City and I’m not sure we ever got an accurate number in the World Trade Center.”

Tiring out

Hots said they have about 200 people out on the debris field, from volunteers to firefighters to the National Guard. He said they are starting a plan for rotating in a new team of fresh searchers.

“I have gotten messages from folks all over the country who want to be a part of this. The folks out there doing this are going to get tired,” said Hots. “They can’t keep doing this forever. As they get tired and need a break, we’re going to start cycling in crews who are fresh.”

Hots said the rain is definitely a factor in the search.

“The areas that are already very saturated with water and muddy, that’s just going to further complicate things. It’s going to be a very difficult day.”

And it’s not just the water, but the situation also gets difficult when the mud starts to dry out.

Hots thanked all the volunteers Thursday.

“We’ve got a tremendous amount of people, unpaid citizens who’ve got special skill sets and live in the community…who have family members that are buried up there and who want to be a part of this,” said Hots. “They have been instrumental and they’re certainly unsung heroes.”

That said, Hots reiterated that they don’t need anymore volunteers showing up at the Darrington fire department at this point.

An emotional search

The search is taking a toll on the crews who have been searching the area. As firefighter Jeff McClelland uncovered a body Wednesday, he realized that the search party had a close connection to the victim: The dead man’s son and brother were among the volunteers scouring the debris field.

The relatives sat beside the body as it was zipped into a bag. McClelland found himself overcome with tears.

The discovery served as a touching reminder of the deeply emotional work that is playing out in this tight-knit town as rescuers like McClelland search for bodies in the muck and devastation, hoping to at least bring some closure to the relatives and friends of those who have not been found.

“I can go home and … eat some food, hug my wife, come in and hug my friends the next morning and say, ‘Let’s go again. We’ve got something to do. We’ve got a job to do, so let’s go do it,'” McClelland said, recalling his thoughts on Wednesday.

Two slides in Oso

Seismometers showed no earthquake triggered Saturday’s mudslide, but seismic signals show there were two major slides during the event, about four minutes apart.

Information about the readings was posted Wednesday on the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network blog by Kate Allstadt, a researcher at the University of Washington.

She writes the landslide was detected on 17 seismic stations up to 170 miles away. The closest was seven miles away.

They show the biggest slide started at 10:37 a.m. and lasted more than two minutes. This is the slide that hit the town of Oso. There was a second slide at 10:41 a.m. This may have been slumping onto the debris. They were followed by more than a dozen smaller slides for more than an hour.

Community Support

Officials announced the creation of a special family assistance center at undisclosed locations in both Arlington and Darrington for those who’ve lost someone in the mudslide. There’s also a 24-hour crisis line at 800-584-3578 for anyone touched by the tragedy to get professional help in dealing with the massive tragedy.

“This is not just for victims. It’s not just for the relatives. This is something that is established for us as a community,” Pennington said. “We are all parents or brothers or sisters or husbands and when we hear about the loss of life it eventually catches up to us and it’s very important that we all begin that process of addressing that. Don’t suppress it.”

Community Transit will open emergency bus service to and from Darrington on Friday – route 231. Check the website for more details.

The Department of Licensing will be in Darrington all day Thursday to help those who’ve lost their ID in the mudslide.

Hots thanked everyone from kids in the community to big corporations like Costco and Home Depot that have stepped up to make contributions.

“Everybody wants to help and that’s just an awesome thing. It makes me very, very proud to say that I’ve lived in this community my whole life and to be a part of it,” he said.

Difficult Conditions

The National Weather Service says rain and showers forecast through Saturday will continue to make the search and recovery effort at the Oso mudslide messy and also increase soil instability in the area.

Forecasters say 1 to 3 inches of rain could fall by the weekend, adding moisture to hillsides, including the one that gave way Saturday.

Hillside and river

Geologists say there’s no risk for another mudslide at this point.

Steve Thompson, Snohomish County Public Works Director, said they are also paying close attention to the hillside on a daily basis with help from geologists in Canada, Colorado, and at the University of Washington and experts with USGS and the Department of Natural Resources.

“If it starts to move, we’ll move the crews out, but we don’t see that happening,” said Thompson.

The Stillaguamish River continues to carve out a new channel and is slowly relieving pressure from the blockage upstream.

“There’s probably 120 million cubic feet of water stored behind that impoundment, but it is being released,” said Thompson.

Injured in the slide

The 1-square-mile slide also critically injured several people, including an infant.

A 5-month-old boy, Duke Saddarth, remained in critical condition in the intensive care unit Thursday afternoon at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. An 81-year-old man is in serious condition in intensive care. A 37-year-old man has been transferred out of intensive care and is in satisfactory condition. Hospital spokeswoman Susan Gregg said a 58-year-old man and 25-year-old Amanda Skorjanc, the infant’s mother, remain in satisfactory condition.

Skorjanc has also had a chance to visit her young son, Duke, in the intensive care unit. Gregg said it was a short visit because Skorjanc herself still has several surgeries and a long recovery ahead of her.

Harborview is accepting cards and letters of support for patients and their families.

“I know there’s a whole community out there that’s worried about everyone,” said Gregg. “Sending a note of support is huge to these families.”

Cards or notes can be mailed to “Oso Landslide Patient,” Harborview Medical Center, 325 9th Avenue, Seattle WA, 98104 or email through the “Email a Patient” website.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Officials delay increasing death toll in Oso mudslide for one more day