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Hope of finding mudslide survivors dims; state of emergency declared

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ARLINGTON, Wash. -- Authorities said Sunday they have been unable to reach one of several homes destroyed in a massive mudslide that swept along the Stillaguamish River in Washington state, dimming hopes that what had sounded like shouting from the wreckage could result in a rescue.

Dammed-up water behind the mudslide has made approaching the wreckage in most cases too perilous to attempt, and rescuers still have been unable to reach most of the ruined homes, emergency officials said Sunday.

“We suspect that there’s people out there, but it’s far too dangerous to get people out there on that mudflow,” Travis Hots, chief of Snohomish County Fire District 21, told reporters at a news briefing Sunday morning.

Without first making sure the mud is safe to walk on, he said, “We have a high potential to injure or worse as many responders as we have out here today.”

Authorities say three people are known to have died in the massive landslide that swept down on homes late Saturday morning near the town of Oso, north of Seattle in Snohomish County.

Eight others have been taken to hospitals, including a 6-month-old baby. A total of 18 people remain unaccounted for.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who was on his way to the scene, declared a state of emergency Sunday. While local authorities have said six homes were destroyed, the governor’s office said the number may be as high as 30.

Authorities warned that the continual flow of the river behind the mudflow could trigger a massive outbreak at any time — a danger that prompted an evacuation order in nearby Arlington on Saturday night.

“Remember, this is a river dumping into a lake. It is continuing to fill up, and it is eventually going to go,” John Pennington, Snohomish County emergency management director, told reporters.

What authorities are preparing for, he said, is “a disaster within a disaster.”

Despite the danger, emergency crews late Saturday night made their way toward a house from which sounds that initially were described as screams were heard after darkness fell. But they were not able to reach the house, and in any case heard no sounds as they approached, Hots said.

“They were not able to get there. The mud was just too thick and deep,” he said. “They couldn’t hear any signs of life once they got close to the structure, so the decision was made to back out.”

The 18 people listed as unaccounted for are “a number that probably is going to be fluid. That’s something that we’re continuing to work on,” Hots said.

Although a firefighter was initially among the missing, it has since been determined that he simply couldn’t hear his radio over the noise of helicopters that swept over the scene in search of victims throughout the day Saturday, Hots said.

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Murphy reported from Los Angeles and La Ganga from Arlington.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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