ARLINGTON, Wash. - Worries of a rising death toll continued to mount Sunday when rescuers could not penetrate a forbidding mudslide that killed at least three people and left as many as 18 more missing in northwestern Washington, officials said.
[Updated, 5:24 p.m. March 23: Later in the day, officials raised the death toll to four.]
“Mother Nature holds the cards here," Washington Gov. Jay Inslee told reporters Sunday afternoon. He added that the devastation left behind by the Saturday mudslide into a cluster of rural homes along the Stillaguamish River, just east of the small town of Oso, "is just unrelenting and awesome - there really is no stick standing in the path of the slide."
As of Sunday, rescuers had been unable to find the source of voices heard among the mud and wreckage Saturday evening, despite a search that included helicopters and hovercraft, officials said.
Some firefighters waded into a square-mile slurry of mud and became stuck up to their armpits, officials said, needing to be pulled out by rope.
“People are putting their own lives at risk in the search and rescue," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who appeared in front of reporters in Arlington.
Despite the effort, however, there have been no more residents rescued since seven people were extricated Saturday, officials said.
“We have families across the state this moment who are wondering about their family members, and the anxiety of that is beyond description," Inslee said. "Every human possibility is being explored here to rescue and find their loved ones.”
Among those missing are Reed Miller's son, Joseph, 47, whom he said is 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.
A steady stream of worried people made their way Sunday 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 now 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, which has blocked an important rural highway as well as the Stillaguamish River, came after an unusually heavy month of rain.
An evacuation order for residents downstream was lifted Sunday morning, but officials warned it could be reinstated. The water was building up behind an artificial dam created by the mudslide and could give way again, officials said.
Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) told reporters that the community of Darrington, about 12 miles east of the slide, has been "isolated" because the mud destroyed Highway 530, which provides an important route for that community of 1,359 residents to reach Washington's populous Pacific coast.
Inslee warned that there was no timeline on when that highway would be restored, warning that restoration would also be "very, very expensive."
"There is literally not a vertical stick standing in that square mile” of mud, Inslee said. “Everything within that path has been leveled, and that is something I have certainly never seen before.”
Inslee's office issued a declaration of emergency on Saturday night, and he said state officials were in contact with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to seek emergency funds.
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