Mudslide 911 calls: 'There's so many people yelling for help'

Mudslide 911 calls: 'There's so many people yelling for help'
Search teams look for mudslide survivors. (Matt Mills McKnight / European Pressphoto Agency)

The woman on the other end of the line was breathless.

"There's like a mudslide and everything's gone, the houses are gone," said the caller to the 911 operator in Snohomish County, Wash., on Saturday.


As the dispatcher tried to calm her, the woman uttered: "I got people here screaming for help. ... They're in the middle of the mud. Oh my god."

On Tuesday, 911 tapes aired by Seattle-area KING-TV revealed some of the early moments of the awe and terror felt after a massive mudslide wiped out a cluster of rural homes, killing at least 14 people and probably more.

One man called to say his wife had heard an "earthquake," and there were hundreds of trees that had collapsed around their home; she was too hysterical to say much more.

Some of the first callers didn't seem to realize the scope of what had just happened. One driver, slightly amused, called to report that the roof of a home or a barn house seemed to have washed on to State Route 530. Another woman who lived in the area called to say that a whole house had washed onto the road.

At least two heard victims calling or tapping for help beneath debris.

"There's so many people yelling for help," one woman told a dispatcher, her voice constricting with emotion as she stared out at the wreckage. "Oh my gosh. It stopped 100 feet from our house."

Another caller, a man, spoke to the operator in calm, polite tones.

"911, what's your emergency?"

"There's been a massive landslide on Highway 530, massive," the caller said.

"Are there people having issues at all?" the dispatcher asked.

"I do, that's why I'm calling," the man answered, perhaps slightly mishearing the question, perhaps slightly distracted by the haunting scene in front of him: "My neighbor's house, and their neighbor's house, have been completely taken out. It's collapsed on several of them and they're trapped."

"You know that they're inside the home, still?" the dispatcher said.

"Yes, I'm standing at the location right now, and I can - and I can hear them tapping underneath and yelling at us," the caller said. "There's several of them in a group under debris and the roof of the house."


By the time rescuers arrived, and discovered that the landslide was so massive that it had completely blocked up the Stillaguamish River, one official radioed what had already been obvious to some of the callers: "I think we're looking at a catastrophic event here."

Three days later, rescuers still haven't left the scene, and the voices beneath the debris have gone silent.