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'No sign of life': Death toll rises to 4 in Washington mudslide

Avalanches and LandslidesDisasters and Accidents

ARLINGTON, Wash. - At least four people were confirmed dead in a northwestern Washington mudslide Sunday as rescuers reported "no signs of life" amid the destruction.

About 18 others remained unaccounted for. More victims may have been claimed when a slurry of mud and debris smashed into rural homes just east of the town of Oso on Saturday, officials said.

The fourth victim was found buried in mud Sunday, but the body was not expected to be recovered for "quite a bit of time," Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots told reporters.

Although it's common during the confusion after disasters for missing people to turn up OK, officials fear the death toll from Saturday's mudslide along the Stillaguamish River could continue to rise. “I get a sense we’re going to have some hard news here," Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said at a Sunday afternoon news conference.

At least 12 victims were hospitalized Saturday - one of whom died - and seven remained hospitalized Sunday afternoon, including five in serious condition or worse, hospital officials told the Los Angeles Times.

Among the victims was a 6-month-old boy who was in critical condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle after being the first victim flown from the disaster site.

“Basically the people were swept away, pinned up against things, covered,” Harborview spokeswoman Elizabeth Hunter told The Times, adding that most of the mudslide wounds were “crushing injuries.”

Rescuers resumed their searches by foot Sunday after officials initially deemed the deluge of mud and debris too dangerous to wade into. Late Saturday, officials said, firefighters got stuck in mud up to their armpits and had to be rescued by rope.

But after two geologists surveyed the square-mile of slurry and wreckage by helicopter Sunday, officials determined the risk was low enough to resume foot searches, said Hots, the fire chief.

Hots at various points during a Sunday afternoon news conference described the number of 18 missing as "fluid" and "growing."

Among those missing are Reed Miller's son, Joseph, 47, whom he said was mentally ill. Miller, 75, had been standing in the grocery checkout line in Arlington on Saturday when ambulances began to scream by. 

"The grocery lady said there was a big mudslide in Oso, and to call her back when I got home OK," Miller recounted Sunday. "I never got there. Nope."

His home was among those damaged or destroyed by the mudslide. Officials said up to 30 homes may have been affected.

The devastation "reminds me very much of the devastation I saw in Mt. St. Helens 34 years ago," Snohomish County Executive John Lovick told reporters, referring to the 1980 volcanic eruption in Skamania County.

Officials said there had been no more voices heard amid the wreckage since rescuers reported hearing signs of life Saturday night.

As worries mounted Sunday, a steady stream of people made their way to the shelter set up in Arlington.

Caroline Neal was among them. She had come looking for word of her father, Stephen, a plumber who was servicing a hot water tank for a woman who had just moved to Oso.

The woman is missing, as is the cable guy who was working on her home at the same time. And Neal's father, Stephen, 52, is nowhere to be found.

"He thinks fast on his feet," said Caroline Neal, clutching photos of her father. "If he had any warning, he would have done everything he could to stay safe."

The mudslide also partially dammed the Stillaguamish River, causing concern about flooding downstream. Those worries lessened Sunday as the river began to carve a path through the slurry.

Officials were turning their concerns toward the loss of Highway 530, a crucial rural highway with a segment about a mile long that is now covered in water and mud about 10 to 15 feet deep, Steve Thompson, the public works director of Snohomish County, told reporters.

The loss of Highway 530 has isolated the community of Darrington, population 1,359, about 12 miles east of the slide, and officials said they didn't know when the road might be rebuilt.

Officials were hoping to open a scenic route that might allow rural residents an alternate way to Washington's populous Pacific coast.

Pearce reported from Los Angeles and La Ganga from Arlington.

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