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Treacherous Mud Slide Debris Challenges Rescue Workers


Search and rescue efforts resume today as soon as the sun comes up on the scene of a landslide, about 50 miles north of Seattle. This slide wiped out part of a small town a couple of days ago, killing at least eight people. And authorities are not sure how many people are still missing.

NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Imagine a narrow valley in the Cascade foothills; the kind with a highway that's squeezed in along the river, with just enough room for a couple of dozen homes tucked in among the trees. Now imagine, one of the hillsides looming above decides to let go.

SIERRA SANSAVER: We thought it was just a car accident at first. And then getting around the corner - and there's a house in the middle of the road.

KASTE: That's Sierra Sansaver, who encountered the edge of the landslide right after it happened on Saturday morning.

SANSAVER: I got down there and the neighbor was like, I don't know how this happened, why is this going on? And then everybody started showing up, and they started hearing a little kid screaming. And they found a 6-month-old baby.

KASTE: The baby was medevaced to Seattle and all weekend long, more helicopters flew up and down the valley - searching for more survivors, and just trying to get a better view of the enormous debris field. It's roughly 1 square mile of mud, trees and crushed houses.

Several survivors were helped out on Saturday but by Sunday afternoon, things looked grim. Fire Chief Travis Hots reported no signs of life, and only one more body.

CHIEF TRAVIS HOTS: The person that we found out there that's deceased is still out there, and mostly buried in the mud. So it's going to take quite a bit of time to get that person out of there.

KASTE: That shows just how treacherous the debris field is. Rescue efforts were suspended for a time while experts tried to guess the likelihood of the whole thing moving downstream. And that caution may have come at a price.

John Lovick is the Snohomish County executive.

JOHN LOVICK: With respect to hearing voices, one of the things that we were in fact told is that there were noises in that area - people were calling out. And we made the decision - I should say, our fire chief, Travis Hots, made the decision that it was too risky to put people in that area.

KASTE: Lovick says after Saturday night, there were no more reports of voices. The other big worry for authorities is what one called the possibility of a disaster within a disaster. As the river water built up behind the debris field, they warned the whole thing could collapse suddenly and flash-flood the valley.

Sarah Arney's house is about six miles downstream.

SARAH ARNEY: They were talking evacuation already at noon. But I thought that I would just wait till I see water come around the bend to my house. And then, when it got dark, I got nervous. So I came to town, stayed with a friend.

KASTE: But 24 hours later, the feared flash-flood had not materialized, and it looked increasingly unlikely. Still, Arney is nervous about living below such an unpredictable phenomenon.

ARNEY: The river is still blocked, and the river is still backing up behind. So we don't know how it's going to come through. You know, is it just going to creep over the top, or is it going to gush through? We still don't really know that.

KASTE: Safety officials say the river water now seems to be working its way through the debris field gradually - that's just what they hoped for. But the area is hardly stable and rescue crews still face considerable danger, as they venture back out onto the debris field to probe for what's underneath.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.


INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.