Mudslide sends houses down slope, killing at least 3

OSO, Wash. — At least three people have been killed and nearly a dozen injured Saturday when a wall of mud crashed into a half-dozen homes east of Arlington, Wash., according to the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.

At least six houses were destroyed when the mud slammed into the homes and cascaded over state Highway 530 four miles east of the town of Oso, said Lt. Rodney Rochon, head of the sheriff’s special operations. Authorities are unsure exactly how many homes were damaged and are searching for additional victims.

“It happened right in front of me,” said Paulo de Oliveira of Lynnwood, Wash., who was driving on Highway 530 when the slide hit around 11 a.m. “I was behind a truck pulling a boat, and then it hit. In 3 seconds, everything got washed away. Darkness covering the whole roadway and one house right in the middle of the street.”

Kane Conner said his mother-in-law suffered a broken finger and her friend was bruised when the slide suddenly smashed into their home. They were able to walk away and yell to neighbors for help, he said.

Conner said the home was destroyed.

“Other than the hundred bucks or so in my pocket, everything’s gone,” said Conner. “We’re still really in shock.”

Rochon said a 6-month-old baby was airlifted to Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center. Hospital spokeswoman Susan Gregg said the baby was in critical condition.

Two other victims are also in the hospital: a 37-year-old man in serious condition and another man, age and condition unknown. In addition a fourth victim, a 68-year-old man, is en route to the hospital, Gregg said.

Cascade Valley Hospital in Arlington has received five victims, one of whom was later released. Three of the four apparently have minor injuries and could be released later Saturday, said Heather Logan, the hospital’s assistant administrator.

Skagit Valley Hospital in Mount Vernon reported that it is treating one critical patient with pelvic injuries.

The mudslide sent tons of debris into the river, causing the river to overflow its banks. Fearing a potential for flooding, officials are asking residents near the slide to evacuate their homes. An emergency shelter has been opened at Post Middle School in Arlington.

Officials urged people to stay away from the area Saturday afternoon as the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River threatened to break through or spread around it, potentially causing further destruction.

“While we are not issuing an evacuation order at this time, we need residents upstream and downstream of the slide to prepare to leave their homes at a moment’s notice,” said Bronlea Mishler, deputy director of communications for Snohomish County. “We are asking residents to prepare their homes, pets, livestock, etc. for immediate evacuation if and when it becomes necessary.”

More than 100 rescuers are looking for additional victims who may have been inside the destroyed houses. One of the search teams had to be rescued after they got stuck in the mud.

Two hovercrafts were being brought in to the area for rescue efforts.

David Logan, 58, Seattle, was among those waiting near the barricade on Highway 530. He said his brother lives in the area hit by the slide and he hasn’t heard from him.

“I know his house is destroyed,” Logan said.

Rochon described the mudslide as at least 40 yards wide and 100 yards from top to bottom. The six houses were destroyed on the south side of the river.

Authorities are trying to get to the north side of the river to assess the damage.

Rochon said there is concern about water flow in the river, which is backed up by debris.

It will take “easily a week” to unblock the river, Rochon said. He said rescue operations and a broader search will need to be completed before heavier equipment can be brought in.

“I haven’t seen anything like this,” he said. What remains from the houses, is “not good even for construction material.”

“I came within about 50 feet of being washed out,” said de Oliveira, the Lynnwood man driving near the slide.

He said he heard a woman screaming from one of the homes destroyed by the slide.

“Along the river, I saw one place where there were two homes and they were just gone. Nothing left but a portable toilet … destruction all over. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

De Oliveira was on his way to pick up his children, who live in Darrington, Wash., with their mother.

Mud, trees and other debris is blocking both directions of Highway 530, according to the state Department of Transportation.

Red Cross officials converged on Post Middle School in Arlington, where they were to set up a shelter for victims of the slide and evacuated residents. Nobody had arrived by 4 p.m., and Red Cross disaster-relief coordinator Andy Hamack said the effort was in its earliest stages.

But already, people were dropping off blankets, dry goods, cases of bottled water and other necessities. Hamack said that, at this point, the best thing members of the community can do is donate money. “Cash,” he said. “Right now, that what we’re going to need.”

Hamack said he had no idea, at this point, how many people to expect.

“We don’t know very much,” he said.

Snohomish County has been saturated with rain this month, establishing the kind of unstable terrain that can lead to mudslides, said Johnny Burg, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

The weather service doesn’t keep statistics for the town of Oso, but it does for Arlington, which is about 12 miles southwest. As of Wednesday — the last day for which the weather service has a report — Arlington had recorded 7.14 inches of rain for the month. That’s just 2 inches shy of the wettest March on record for Arlington, and that total, 9.23 inches, was for the entire month.

Darrington, another town not far from Oso, received close to an inch of rain on Wednesday alone, Burg said.

Law-enforcement officers are going door to door in the area to evacuate residents.

Emergency workers are also using the reverse 911 phone system to alert people along the highway from the slide area to the town of Arlington, about 14 miles.

Slides and floods have long threatened Oso and other nearby communities.

In January 2006, Snohomish County declared a state of emergency when a mudslide blocked the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River, diverting water and threatening about a dozen homes in the Steelhead Drive area of Oso.

At that time, about 300 yards of a hillside slid into the river. The Army Corps of Engineers, assisted by others, fortified the new channel with logs and rocks along the river’s edge, hoping to keep the Stillaguamish from nearby homes and yards.

Flooding on the Stillaguamish also threatened homes in 2010 and 1995, among other years.

(Seattle Times staff reporters Mike Carter and Ken Armstrong contributed to this report.)


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