Landslide Search: 'I Don't Think Anything Could Prepare You'

By: Matt Smith
By: Matt Smith

(CNN) -- Slogging through sometimes waist-deep mud, rescuers returned to the "unreal" scene of a deadly Cascade Mountain landslide Thursday with the grim expectation that more bodies waited underneath them.

Saturday's collapse dragged several homes downhill with it, scattering their contents among hundreds of acres of earth and smashed trees.

"Anything that anyone would have in a neighborhood is now strewn out here," said Steve Mason, a Snohomish County fire battalion chief.

"We've had houses that have been more intact than others," Mason told reporters at the edge of the slide. "Some of them look like they've been put in a blender and dropped on the ground, so you have basically a big pile of debris."

The landslide near Oso, about 60 miles northeast of Seattle, has claimed about two dozen lives. The official death toll stood at 16 on Thursday afternoon, but at least eight more bodies that have been found won't be added to the count until medical examiners can identify them, District Chief Travis Hots said. When they do, "You're going to see these numbers increase substantially," he said.

Another 90 remained unaccounted for as rescuers dug into the ground with chainsaws, pumps and their hands in hopes of finding survivors -- or least bringing solace to family members by finding remains.

"Sometimes it takes several hours to get somebody out of an area," Hots said. When a body is extracted, "You can almost hear a pin drop out there. You see seasoned veterans in this business, they start to tear up. Their eyes get glossy."

No survivors have been found since the weekend, but Hots said searchers haven't given up hope of rescuing at least some those still missing.

"My heart is telling me that I'm not giving up yet," he said. "My philosophy is even if we say this is just a recovery mission, we're still going at it full steam ahead."

Among the dead was Summer Raffo, who was driving past the area when the slide hit.

"My heart is broken. It's broken," her mother, Rae Smith, said.

And pointing out homes on a map, volunteer rescuer Peter Selvig noted the seemingly random nature of the fatalities.

"This guy lived and his wife died ... we were on the school board together for about 30 years," Selvig said.

More rain made the mud worse Thursday, slowing the search, rescuers reported.

"Just walking through it, it's almost impossible," said Senior Airman Charlotte Gibson, part of an Air National Guard squadron assisting the search. "You'll fall in about waist-deep in some areas, knee-deep in some areas. You're just wading through it."

And Master Sgt. Chris Martin told reporters, "I don't think anything could prepare you for what you see out there."

Workers were building an emergency road to nearby Darrington along with pathways of plywood and logs in hopes of making it easier to get people and equipment into the search zone Thursday afternoon. Mason said the mud also holds the remains of septic systems, requiring searchers to wash thoroughly at the end of their shifts. And the collapse cut off the Stillaguamish River, causing the water to back up into what's now a small lake, he said.

"You have homes on this side that are now islands," he said. On another side, "Cars are under water."

The area affected in the most recent calamity has been hit before, in 1951, 1967, 1988 and 2006. Daniel Miller, a geomorphologist who co-wrote a report in 1999 for the Army Corps of Engineers that looked at options to reduce sediments from area landslides, said that none of these events resulted in deaths, though at least the most recent one damaged houses.

This history, along with erosion from Stillaguamish River and worries about overlogging, prompted some mitigation and other efforts. A 2010 plan identified the area swept away as one of several "hot spots," John Pennington, Snohomish County's emergency management director, told reporters Wednesday.

The county had been saturated by "amazing" rains for weeks on end that made the ground even less stable, Pennington added. Then there was a small, recent earthquake that may or may not have shaken things up more.

But he said no one anticipated an event of the scale of what happened Saturday morning: "Sometimes, big events just happen." And he said residents knew the area was "landslide-prone" -- an assertion one of them challenged.

"Nobody ever told us that there were geology reports," Robin Youngblood told CNN's Anderson Cooper. "... This is criminal, as far as I'm concerned."

With more rain in the forecast Thursday and Friday, Snohomish County Public Works Director Steve Thompson said rescuers are working with one eye on the weather.

"Right now there's no risk of further slides, but we're watching the rain," Thompson said Thursday.

-- CNN's Gabe Ramirez and Ana Cabrera contributed to this report.

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