Mudslide ‘situation is very grim’

The Seattle Times Published Mar 25, 2014 at 12:01AM

SEATTLE — Fourteen people were confirmed dead from the massive mudslide in Washington state’s Snohomish County, after searchers found six more bodies Monday afternoon.

There are still 108 reports of missing and unaccounted-for individuals as a result of the disaster.

John Pennington, who heads the county’s Department of Emergency Management, quickly said earlier that some reports of the missing are vague and insists the number of victims will not be nearly that large. He called 108 “a soft number.”

Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots said “the situation is very grim.”

“We are still holding out hope we are going to find people alive. We are still in a rescue mode,” Hots added.

Dave Norman, state geologist with the Department of Natural Resources, said Monday afternoon that the mudslide is still moving, and there’s no way to tell when it will be stable enough for rescue workers to resume looking for victims throughout the slide area.

“That is something we’re trying to get a better handle on,” Norman said at a news conference. “If we can see that there’s less movement, we will have a better feel for whether it’s safe for rescue workers to go back out.”

The mudslide area is nearly a mile square, Norman said. The cliff it left behind in the mountain is 600 feet tall and 1,500 feet long.

“This is one of the biggest landslides I’ve seen,” he said.

The Stillaguamish River has started to flow across the top of and around the debris field, which Norman said is a good thing.

Working with Norman and other DNR officials are geologists from the state Department of Transportation, the U.S. Geological Survey and Snohomish County.

Rescuers on Monday were using aircraft, and Pennington said in the morning that four search-dog teams and technical teams with equipment to probe the ground were to join the search. But it wasn’t clear if that had yet happened, or if they were all kept away or on the edges of the slide because of fear for their safety. Rescue workers were seen on the west side of the slide Monday afternoon.

Searchers going through debris have been sinking in the mud, which is 20 feet or more deep in some areas.

Lisa Bishop of Kent was walking around Arlington with her dog, Cody, a rescue dog with Northwest Disaster Search Dogs, trained to find survivors in disasters. But they were in town because officials were preventing them from going up because it’s too dangerous. “It’s frustrating,” Bishop said.

President Barack Obama signed an emergency declaration Monday, allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies to coordinate relief efforts as needed.

Jose Mangual, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, said his 13-year-old son, Jovon Mangual, is among those missing.

Also missing, he said, are three other members of Jovon’s family: Jovon’s stepfather, Billy Spillers, and Jovon’s half-sisters Kaylee Spillers, 5, and Brooke Spillers, 2.

The children’s mother, Jonielle Spillers, a nursing assistant, and Jovon’s 4-year-old half-brother, Jacob Spillers, are alive, Mangual said.

Mangual said Jonielle Spillers was working when she found out about the mudslide. Blocked from reaching home because of the slide, she called hospitals, which is how she found Jacob.

The Spillers moved from Seattle to Oso about two years ago, Mangual said.

Billy Spillers, a chief petty officer in the Navy, is stationed at the naval base in Everett and the family liked the nearby property in Oso “because it was more country-like and they liked the house,” Mangual said.

Billy Spillers and the children were apparently at home watching TV when the mudslide happened, according to Mangual, who said he spoke with Jacob about what happened. Jacob said he was on the second floor of the house.

“Jacob told me he got out when nobody else was able to get out,” Mangual said.

Mangual’s son, Jovon, is “really into sports — football,” his father said. “He’s a real happy boy. Always joking around. He has a lot of friends.”

Billy Spillers is a “really loving step-dad,” Mangual said. “He’s always there for them, even with my son. Really paying attention to the details, going to JoJo’s games, making him feel really part of the family.”

Kaylee and Brooke Spillers are “real girlish, real happy,” playing often with their dolls and enjoying drawing.

Mangual, who spoke by phone from Colorado Springs, Colo., where he is stationed at Fort Carson, was planning to fly to Seattle Monday afternoon and head to Oso.

“I hope to find them all alive and be reunited with my family,” Mangual said.

Also among the missing is Thomas Durnell, 65.

Deb Durnell, his wife, was working Saturday morning and is safe, according to her daughter, Pam Keller.

But Tom Durnell, retired and at the couple’s home Saturday, is unaccounted for.

“It’s really devastating,” said Carrie Milburn, a friend of the Durnells.

Milburn said the couple loved their house, where they moved after getting married in 2010.

Milburn said she and her husband recently had a “great long” dinner with the Durnells. “They talked about how tickled they were” by the house and its view of the Stillaguamish River, Milburn said.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., speaking at the same Arlington news conference as Hots and Pennington, said that FEMA and other federal agencies are ready to assist.

Going into detail about the slide site, near Oso, Pennington said there are 59 vacant lots in the slide area, and another 49 lots had some sort of structure — meaning a house, a cabin or some type of possible dwelling. Of all of the structures, 25 were likely occupied full time.

Pennington was asked about reports that some youths had been at a slumber party in a home at the slide area. He said he hadn’t heard anything about that.

He also said he didn’t know about reports that there had been logging on the slope.

“The area was mitigated very heavily. It was considered very safe,” he said. “This was a completely unforeseen slide. This came out of nowhere.”

Pennington said that because the slide happened on a Saturday, more people likely were at home, not at work.

The massive slide is now reported at 15 million cubic yards of mud and debris, said Steve Thompson, the county’s public works director. The mudslide came down from a hillside above the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River, crossed over it, plowed through homes and other structures and onto Highway 530 about 11 a.m. Saturday, flattening everything in its path.

He said the county isn’t moving any heavy equipment to the site at this point, not wanting to endanger the crews.

Marcus Deyering, spokesman for the Northwest Management Incident Team, said crews using heavy-duty lights spent the night searching the area “where it was safe to search.”

The names of the confirmed dead or the missing have not been released by officials, although some survivors or the families of the missing have talked to the media and provided names.

Ted. S. Warren / The Associated Press Houses and other structures are shown flooded by the backed-up Stillaguamish River up-river from the massive mudslide in Washington that killed at least 14 people Saturday and left dozens missing.
Ted S. Warren / The Associated Press An intact house is shown at right near where water from the Stillaguamish River is flowing around the edge of the massive mudslide near Oso, Wash. The search for survivors grew Monday, raising fears that the death toll could climb far beyond the 14 confirmed fatalities.
Ted S. Warren / The Associated Press The massive mudslide backs up the Stillaguamish River near Oso, Wash. The search for survivors grew Monday, raising fears that the death toll could climb far beyond the 14 confirmed fatalities.