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Washington mudslide: More than 150 still missing after ‘end of the world’ disaster

President calls on Americans to pray for victims as rescuers lose hope of finding more survivors
  • @timwalker

At least 24 people are now believed to have been killed by a vast mudslide that swept over a small town in Snohomish County, Washington on Saturday. Rescuers said the “unofficial” death toll comprised the 16 bodies recovered from the site by Tuesday evening, and a further eight that had been spotted but not yet retrieved.

More than 150 people are still listed as missing following the disaster, though officials hoped to reduce that number, saying some people may have been double-counted, or simply slow to make contact with the authorities about their whereabouts.

Shortly before 11am on Saturday, the town of Oso, on the banks of the Stillaguamish River around 60 miles north of Seattle, was flattened by a 177ft wall of wet mud, trees and debris, levelling 30 houses and leaving a trail of destruction a mile wide. The area had suffered a smaller mudslide in 2006, and local residents were reportedly aware of the “high risk” of another disaster, but John Pennington, the director of Snohomish County Emergency Management, insisted “the community did feel safe.”

One Oso resident, 50-year-old Michael Lincoln, told the Seattle Times that he and his wife had been sleeping in on Saturday when the mudslide struck. “The noise was awful,” he said, “ it sounded like the end of the world.” As the slide subsided, Mr Lincoln ventured outside and found himself waist-deep in mud. Another nearby home had been torn in two and buried, but he heard a voice and the sound of tapping from inside. Joined by other rescuers, Mr Lincoln tore into the roof and eventually watched as 81-year-old Gary McPherson was pulled to safety by an emergency crew.

Mr McPherson and his wife Linda, 69, had been married for 46 years and lived in the house for 40 of them. The couple were drinking coffee in their twin reclining chairs when the mudslide slammed into their home, lifting and moving it about 150ft, and pulling the pair apart. As he was dragged from the wreckage, Mr McPherson pleaded with his rescuers to find his wife. Linda McPherson’s body was the first to be recovered from the devastation.

On Tuesday, footage emerged of the dramatic helicopter rescue of a four-year-old boy, named only as Jacob, who had to be wrestled crying from the mud, leaving his trousers behind. The boy’s mother also survived, but his father and four siblings remained unaccounted for.

A helicopter rescuer snatches a four-year-old boy from the mudslide (Fox News)

No survivors have been found since Saturday, and officials have acknowledged that the chances of rescuing anyone else alive from beneath the mud were slim. “We haven’t lost hope that there’s a possibility that we could find somebody alive,” local fire chief Travis Hots told reporters on Tuesday evening. “We are coming to the realisation that that may not be a possibility, but we’re still going at this with all eight cylinders to get everyone out there who is unaccounted for.”

President Barak Obama declared the disaster an emergency, and on Tuesday the Federal Emergency Management Agency joined the Washington Army National Guard and local emergency teams in the relief effort, bringing the total number of search-and-rescue workers scouring the site to around 200 at a time, using helicopters, diggers, laser imaging, sonar technology and specially trained dogs. Tuesday’s heavy rain was expected to be followed by more bad weather.

Speaking at a news conference in the Netherlands on Tuesday, Mr Obama asked his fellow Americans to pray for the victims of the slide. “We hope for the best, but recognise this is a tough situation,” he said.