Scores still missing as mudslide toll hits 24
Published 27/03/2014 | 02:30
HIGHWAY 530 once led drivers on a winding route along tree-lined valleys between the Pacific Ocean and the snow-capped Cascade Mountains.
But now at mile point 49, just beyond the rural town of Oso, the navigable road ends abruptly at the flashing lights of a police checkpoint. Beyond that lie death, questions – and the fading hopes of a remote rural community engulfed by a torrent of almost unimaginable horror.
The "530 mudslide", as it is known here, struck at 11am on Saturday, bringing a mile-wide wave of debris down the hill and crashing on to the family homes of Steelhead Drive.
The mud burst through doors and shattered windows instantly, a relentless wall of sludge that pursued its victims up the stairs until there was nowhere left for them to run.
"When we dig into these houses they are full of mud from floor to ceiling," said Dennis Fenstermaker, a local fire chief. "We have a house where there is a car in the attic, it just punched through the floors of the home."
The official number of people killed is 24, but the total still unaccounted for is an alarming 176 and authorities admit that chances of finding more survivors beneath the mud that destroyed 30 homes, along with cars and anyone unlucky enough to be passing by, are dimming.
"This is a 9/11 type event for our community," said Mr Fenstermaker. "There's always hope but it's obviously diminishing greatly."
Among the dozens still missing are Billy Spillers and his children Jo Jo (13), Kaylee (5) and Brook (2). The children's mother, Jonielle, was out of the house at work and their four-year-old brother Jacob was pulled barefoot from the mud by a helicopter.
The infant, shivering and smeared with dirt, was one of eight rescued by the helicopter on Saturday. No survivors have been found since.
The fate of the Spillers and other missing children weighed heavily on the people of neighbouring Darrington as they gathered in the high school for a community meeting and an update on the search late in the evening.
Sue-Ann Campbell's 19-year-old son Aaron was among the first to rush to the scene and pulled a body from the mud.
"Afterwards he was quiet and distant, he wasn't himself," she recalled. "Finally, he turned to me and said, 'Mom, it's gone, it's all gone'."
More than 200 searchers and dogs continue to clamber through a muddy landscape that has been violently re-ordered by the slide.
For the most part, Darrington has welcomed the legions of outsiders who have descended on their town of just 1,347 people. Schoolchildren take shifts making sandwiches and the town's gym, home of the Darrington Loggers basketball team, has been converted into a dormitory for exhausted rescuers.
But there is also frustration among the people of the town, who want to put their knowledge and their generations of logging skills to work to help rescue their friends, family and neighbours.
"We know these woods better than anyone coming from outside," said Jesse Russell, a 65-year-old nurse.
"People want to help and don't want to be told they can't."
Some, like the family of 36-year-old Summer Raffo, have defied police orders to stay away and cut through the woods to search for loved ones, eventually leading to threats of arrest.
Ms Raffo, a skilled horse farrier, did not live in the area but was driving through on her way to shoe a horse when the mud came down. She is still among the missing.
"She would just walk right up to the horses and calm them down," said her friend, Denise Clark.
"She was so strong, she was no girlie girl. We're still hoping and praying to see her again. I'm not giving up until I know for sure she's gone." (© Daily Telegraph, London)