DARRINGTON, Wash. — Four days after anyone has been pulled alive from the wall of mud that rolled over two towns north of Seattle, some relatives of the missing had not given up on Wednesday.
“We’re just keeping faith and hope in his ability to survive,” said Ryan Neal about his father, Steve, who had been installing a hot water tank in a home when it was struck Saturday. “He was a survival enthusiast, and he did enjoy trying to find ways to survive in extreme conditions. So, hopefully, those skills are serving him well.”
He had been working with Bill Welsh, who is also among the missing.
Welsh’s wife, Barbara, last saw him early Saturday as he headed out to help install the tank. If anyone can get through the disaster, it’s the Vietnam vet she’s been married to for 43 years, she said. “I believe in him,” Barbara Welsh said. “All you can do is keep believing.”
At least 16 people have been confirmed dead and another eight bodies have been located but not recovered, said Travis Hots, chief of Snohomish County Fire District 21/22.
“We haven’t lost hope that there is a possibility that we could find somebody alive in some pocket area,” he told reporters Tuesday as rain delayed rescue efforts that included 200 searchers aided by bulldozers and search-and-rescue dogs.
In all, 176 people were unaccounted for, but officials said the number may be smaller since some names may have been duplicated.
Finding them will be tough. In Oso, population about 180, and Darrington, population 1,350, houses have been buried under some 30- to 40-feet of mud.
And it will be dangerous since some of the mud covering the 49 structures affected has the consistency of quicksand.
President Barack Obama, in the Netherlands on Tuesday, asked that “all Americans to send their thoughts and prayers to Washington state and the community of Oso.”
Obama said he had spoken with Gov. Jay Inslee and signed an emergency declaration.
Waiting over for some
Nichole Rivera returned to her hometown of Darrington in hopes that her loved ones would be found alive.
But after seeing the devastation, she said she had given up hope. “I can tell you with great soundness they’re not going to find my parents, or daughter, or her fiance,” she said.
Now she and her family just want the bodies. If they are never recovered, they will take comfort in knowing that they will rest in ground that they loved. Her relatives had plans to put their burial plots on their own land.
The waiting came to an end Tuesday for the family of U.S. Navy Cmdr. John Regelbrugge — at least in part. His brothers found his body and that of his dog.
But his wife, Kris, was still missing.
“They were both home when the slide hit, but they haven’t found her yet,” said Jackie Leighton, Regelbrugge’s sister-in-law.
The rescues came early, and some were bittersweet. Four-year-old Jacob Spillers got out of the wreckage in Oso. He was in an upstairs room when the mudslide crashed into his home, and rescuers plucked him up and took him to safety.
His mother also survived — she was at work when the wall of earth came.
But his father and three half-siblings remained in the house and were among the missing.
The landslide trapped Cory Kuntz’s aunt and uncle in the same house. His uncle found an air pocket under the roof — and a stick that he used to attract attention from neighbors by pounding it on the roof.
“My neighbors and my friends came and started digging him out,” Kuntz said. Kuntz’s aunt did not survive.
Kuntz also lost his home in Oso.
‘I believe in miracles’
Belief has kept some searchers going as they comb the area, Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington said. “I believe in miracles, and I believe people can survive these events. They’ve done it before,” and they can do it again, he told reporters.
But rescuers caked in mud returned Tuesday from the search, many with despair on their faces.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t find any signs of life,” Hots told reporters.
An ambulance took a child to Robin Youngblood, herself a survivor. “I wrapped him up and held him and told him I was a grandma and couldn’t find the rest of his family,” she said.