March 25th, 2014
06:31 AM ET

Hope of Finding More Survivors of Washington Landslide Dims as List of Dead, Missing Grows

Peering across the devastated landscape, Cory Kuntz just shakes his head.

"When you look at it, you just get in shock," he told CNN affiliate KING. "You kind of go numb."

Kuntz lost his aunt and his home on Saturday when a rural Washington hillside north of Seattle gave way, crashing and oozing its way through the community of Oso.

Thanks to the efforts of friends and neighbors, his uncle's life was spared, though he was nearly buried alive.

"They heard him pounding on that roof. He had a little air pocket and a stick. He said he was poking up on it, banging on it," Kuntz said. "My neighbors and my friends came and started digging him out and just couldn't get to my aunt in time."

As the search and rescue effort carried into a fourth day, the number of dead and missing grew as hope of finding any more survivors dwindled.

With six bodies found Monday, the toll from Saturday's disaster grew to 14 dead, Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington said Monday at a news conference.

"I believe it's fair to say that most of us in these communities believe that we will not find any individuals alive," Pennington said. "I am a man of faith, and I believe in miracles," but "we are moving towards a recovery operation."

The grim assessment was echoed by the local fire chief.

"I'm very disappointed to tell you that we didn't find any sign of any survivors, and we found no survivors today," Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots told reporters Monday evening. "The situation is very grim."

Even as hopes dimmed Lisa Bishop and her certified rescue dog Cody stood ready to help.

"This is exactly what we're trained for, to look for live individuals that might be buried under the mud," she told affiliate KOMO.

The search teams also deployed sonar equipment and aircraft to find trapped survivors.

The number of people unaccounted for ballooned from 18 on Sunday to 176 by the end of the day on Monday. He stressed that it's a list of names, not a tally of anticipated fatalities.

Pennington said he expects that number to drop "dramatically" because people will turn up and the process of gathering names is inexact, with some duplicated information. Seven people are reported injured.

The landslide covered about a square mile and was caused by groundwater saturation tied to heavy rain in the area over the past month. It affected Oso, with a population of about 180, and Darrington, a town of about 1,350.

The first reports of the landslide came in around 10:45 a.m. Saturday (1:45 p.m. ET), the sheriff's office said.

Dave Norman, a Washington state geologist, said the landslide was about 4,400 feet wide with a wide debris field. In some places, the debris is 30-40 feet thick.

"This is one of the biggest landslides I have ever seen," Norman said.

The landslide cut off State Road 530 to Darrington. Part of the Stillaguamish River also was blocked, and residents were warned of possible flooding both upstream and downstream of the collapse.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee was struck by the shear power of the landslide.

"Every single item has been destroyed," he said. "There's really not a stick standing anywhere in that square mile."

Federal Emergency Management Agency assets began arriving late Monday and more were expected Tuesday. California also sent expert help, deploying 18 urban search and rescue personnel to Washington, California Gov. Jerry Brown said late Monday.

In the nation's capital, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state told her colleagues the damage was hard to imagine.

"There are dozens and dozens of families who do not know if their loved ones are still alive," she said. "This weekend I saw some of the worst devastation I have ever seen in my home state."

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