Rescuers seek answers as mudslide search continues
DARRINGTON, Wash. — The search by heavy equipment, dogs and bare hands for victims from the deadly Washington mudslide was going “all the way to the dirt” as crews looked for anything to provide answers for family and friends a week after a small mountainside community was destroyed.
All work on the debris field halted briefly Saturday for a moment of silence to honor those lost. Gov. Jay Inslee had asked people across Washington to pause at 10:37 a.m., the time the huge slide struck on March 22, destroying a neighborhood in the community of Oso north of Seattle. Authorities say they have found at least 25 bodies and 90 remain missing.
“People all over stopped work — all searchers — in honor of that moment, so people we are searching for know we are serious,” Snohomish County Fire District 1 battalion chief Steve Mason said.
An American flag had been run up a tree and then down to half-staff at the debris site, he said.
Dan Rankin, mayor of the nearby logging town of Darrington, said the community had been “changed forevermore.”
“It’s going to take a long time to heal, and the likelihood is we will probably never be whole,” he said.
Among the dozens of missing are a man in his early 20s, Adam Farnes, and his mother, Julie.
“He was a giant man with a giant laugh,” Kellie Howe said of Farnes. Howe became friends with him when he moved to the area from Alaska. She said Adam Farnes was the kind of guy who would come into your house and help you do the dishes.
Adam Farnes also played the banjo, drums and bass guitar, she said, and had worked as a telephone lineman and a 911 dispatcher.
“He loved his music loud,” she said. “They still have not found him or his mom. They’re going through a hard time right now.”
Finding and identifying all the victims could stretch on for a very long time, and authorities have warned that not everyone may ultimately be accounted for after one of the deadliest landslides in U.S. history.
Rescuers have given a cursory look at the entire debris field 55 miles northeast of Seattle, said Steve Harris, division supervisor for the eastern incident management team. They are now sifting through the rest of the fragments, looking for places where dogs should give extra attention. Only “a very small percentage” has received the more thorough examination, he said.
Dogs working four-hour shifts have been the most useful tool, Harris said, but they’re getting hypothermic in the rain and muck.
“This is western Washington, folks,” Harris said. “These people are used to rain.”
Commanders are making sure people have the right gear to stay safe in the rain and potentially hazardous materials, and they’re keeping a close eye on the level of the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River to be sure nobody is trapped by rising water.
At the debris site Saturday, Mason, the battalion chief, said teams first do a hasty search of any wreckage of homes they find. If nothing is immediately discovered, they do a more detailed, forensic search.
“We go all the way to the dirt,” he said.
Crews are also collecting bags of personal belongings that would later be cleaned, sorted and hopefully returned to families.
“What we found out here is everything from pictures to gun safes,” Mason said. “Anything you would have at your house.”
The huge wall of earth that crashed into the collection of homes followed weeks of heavy rain.
Previous slides triggered by storms included one that killed 150 people in Virginia in the wake of Hurricane Camille in 1969 and another that killed 129 when rain from Tropical Storm Isabel loosened tons of mud that buried the Puerto Rican community of Mameyes in 1985.
A dam in San Francisquito Canyon, Calif., collapsed in 1928, causing an abutment to give way and killing 500 people, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey.
Crews pleaded with the public not to show up and try to help. Only local volunteers are being allowed to help rescuers.
Joe Wright of Darrington set up his tool-sharpening operation near the firehouse. He’s been busy. In a little more than a day, he estimated he had sharpened more than 150 chainsaw chains dulled by rocks and dirt.
“There were people using their own saws,” Wright said. “They’re just trying to get down there to get the job done.”
Rankin, the Darrington mayor, said whenever the highway eventually reopens through the slide area, even if it follows a different path, the missing hillside will be a permanent reminder of what the community lost.
“That scar on the mountain will never heal,” Rankin said, “and neither will the scar on our hearts.”
Associated Press photographer Elaine Thompson in Oso, writer Phuong Le in Seattle and researchers Judith Ausuebel, Jennifer Farrar and Susan James contributed to this report.