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14 Known To Have Died, But Mudslide's Toll May Go Higher

This post was last updated at 7:52 p.m. ET.

Already sad news from a tiny community north of Seattle turned even more grim on Monday. Officials said that they had found six more bodies, bringing the death toll to 14.

What's most stunning, perhaps, is that officials expect that number to climb, because they have received reports of about 108 people still missing.

NPR's Martin Kaste reports that officials weren't saying the death toll will exceed 100. "Some of the names [on the list] are uncertain ... some of the reports are vague," he told our Newscast Desk. It's likely that some of those on the list weren't in the area at the time of the slide.

At the same time, he says, emergency officials repeated that the millions of yards of mud couldn't have come crashing down on the 49 residential lots in the community of Oso at a worse time. It happened on Saturday morning, when many people were likely to be at home, rather than at work or school.

Update at 10:54 p.m. ET:

Snohomish County officials have increased the number missing to 176, although they stress that they believe the list contains many duplicate names. The number earlier in the day was 108.

From the Seattle Times:

"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 Department of Natural Resources, said this 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."

Update at 4:55 p.m. ET:In a statement, the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office said because of the potential for more slide activity, some rescue crews have been pulled from the search area.

"Geologists are surveying the scene to [assess] any risk," the sheriff's office said in a statement.

About 100 responders are still continuing their search, however.

Update at 3:30 p.m. ET: Now, Martin adds during a conversation recorded for today's All Things Consideredthat searchers continue to face a very dangerous situation. The debris, he says, "is treacherous and shifting. ... It's [like] quicksand mixed with timber."

Also on All Things Considered, University of Washington geologist David Montgomery will talk about the three factors he thinks are likely to have contributed to the slide:

-- Heavy rains in March.

-- The hill's "fairly weak, glacial material." It was basically, he says, "a wall of sand and silt that's hundreds of feet tall."

-- The river at the bottom of the valley that "has been cutting into the toe of he slope."

There had slides there before, Montgomery also notes, and one lesson from this tragedy might be this: "Slopes that have failed in the past may cut loose without warning."

Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams All Things Considered.

Update at 1:45 p.m. ET: Meanwhile, according to The Seattle Times:

"Officials at [Monday] morning's news conference looked tired and weary as they spoke to a mass of reporters outside the Arlington Police Department.

" 'This is a large scale-disaster,' said Pennington, adding that the entire state and the nation have come to realize."

Our original post, which was updated at 12:30 p.m. ET with news of the higher number of missing, picks up the story:

Searchers pulled more bodies from a soupy mixture of muck and debris, bringing the death toll to eight, after a massive mudslide over the weekend smashed through a community in rural western Washington state.

In a news conference Monday morning (local time), Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington said a consolidated list of missing and unaccounted-for contained 108 names.

"It's a soft 108," he said, and doesn't mean there are that many injuries or fatalities.

Pennington said he anticipates the number will "decline dramatically" as officials work through the report.

He said some of the missing included construction workers coming into the neighborhood and people who happened to be driving by when the mudslide occurred on Saturday morning.

Pennington said authorities were still hopeful, but that "we have not found anyone alive on this pile since Saturday."

He said at least 49 homes and other structures had been damaged or destroyed in the mudslide.

Tod Gates, an incident commander, was quoted by The Seattle Times on Sunday as saying he and other rescuers had used helicopters to fly over the wreckage, where they spotted four bodies Sunday, adding to four others found the day before.

NPR's Martin Kaste, reporting from Seattle, says millions of cubic yards of soil clogged the narrow river valley east of Interstate 5 about 50 miles north of Seattle.

"We didn't see or hear any signs of life out there today," Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots said. "It's very disappointing to all emergency responders on scene."

On Sunday, officials said there were at least 18 people trapped in the mud. The Times says more casualties are likely, as the slide destroyed 30 or more homes and a mile-long stretch of Highway 530.

Officials think recent heavy rainfall made the ground unstable, triggering the mudslide.

KIRO TV reports:

"Washington Gov. Jay Inslee described the scene as 'a square mile of total devastation' after flying over the disaster area midday Sunday. He assured families that everything was being done to find their missing loved ones.

" 'There is a full-scale, 100 percent aggressive rescue going on right now,' said Inslee, who proclaimed a state of emergency."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.