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More casualties confirmed as result of Oso landslide

Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management Director John Pennington, left, looks on as Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots relays his on-site observations of the Oso landslide rescue and recovery efforts to the news media on March 25. - Kirk Boxleitner
Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management Director John Pennington, left, looks on as Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots relays his on-site observations of the Oso landslide rescue and recovery efforts to the news media on March 25.
— image credit: Kirk Boxleitner

ARLINGTON — "I've seen so many wonderful things these last few days, and the things that I've seen, the love and support for this community, will sustain me for many years to come," Snohomish County Executive John Lovick said, as he opened county officials' second and final press conference of the day on Tuesday, March 25, to discuss the ongoing rescue and recovery efforts in the wake of the Oso landslide on Saturday, March 22.

Just as the Emergency Operations Center had moved from the Arlington Police Station and City Council Chambers to the Arlington Municipal Airport offices during the day, so too did the day's press conferences move from outside the police station at 9 a.m. to inside the city's utilities building in Haller Park at 6:30 p.m., where Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots delivered the news that not only had no new survivors nor signs of life been discovered during the day, but two more bodies were recovered on March 25, bringing the landslide's official death toll to 16. Worse yet, Hots reported that crews believe they've located eight more bodies, which, if confirmed, would bring the total number of dead to 24.

Snohomish County lent its Sheriff's Department helicopter and its Volunteer Search and Rescue personnel to the day's efforts, which also made use of search and cadaver dogs. Hots promised that about 70 members of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Urban Search and Rescue Team were on their way, while touting the arsenal of heavy equipment already on the ground, from bulldozers to compact trackhoe excavators. When supplemented by the National Guard's Urban Search and Rescue Team and regional technical rescue teams, Hots estimated that this added up to a group of more than 200 responders on site.

"As a fire chief, I believe it's important for me to get out there in the trenches, where my people are working, and find out what their needs are, to see how we can better support their needs and the operation," said Hots, who met up with several of his former colleagues, from when he'd served on the Marysville Fire District's Technical Rescue Team, on the Darrington side of the landslide on March 25. "The words I heard from those folks were, 'We're getting all the support we need, and it's great seeing all these federal, state and regional resources coming in.' One of the captains even said to me, 'Travis, it seems like the system is firing on all eight cylinders.' I was very pleased to hear that, because they're not the type of people who would just tell me what I want to hear."

Hots noted that the day's rain made what he'd already described as "slow and tedious work" even more so, by making the terrain more muddy and challenging to move through.

"It is just amazing the magnitude and the force that this slide had created, and what it has done," said Hots, who recalled seeing the remains of cars that had been crumpled, twisted and torn apart.

John Pennington, director of the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management, addressed the assistance that's being provided to both landslide survivors and the families of its victims, including a Family Assistance Center for the latter, which he expects will be established in the Arlington area on Wednesday, March 26.

"It's not for families who have been displaced," Pennington said. "This Family Assistance Center is about unifying and bringing together information for those who are in that grieving process, and helping them directly and with extraordinary privacy."

As such, Pennington requested that members of the media and the public respect those people's privacy.

For those who have been displaced by the landslide, Snohomish County Human Services and the American Red Cross are working to provide temporary housing.

"If you need information, if you are displaced, and at this point, have not been assisted, I'm going to go ahead and encourage you, one more time, to come to that Call Center number of 425-388-5088," Pennington said.

Pennington explained that Community Transit is finalizing its plans for emergency public transportation services to and from Darrington, to connect the town's residents with grocery and medical services in Skagit County, as well as job centers in Arlington and Everett. He elaborated that buses would leave Darrington during the early morning hours for the Chuckanut Park and Ride in Burlington, after which they would head to Everett. More details will be available at www.communitytransit.org.

Also starting on March 26, the Department of Emergency Management Call Center will be staffed during its new hours of 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., while the DEMCallCenter@SnoCo.org email will remain available and monitored throughout the day and night.

"The Call Center, tomorrow night after 8 o'clock, will transition into kind of a recorded tip line, where we aren't monitoring it all the time," said Pennington, who added that live staffers would continue to take phone calls during the day, from those seeking to report their family members, friends and other loved ones as among those who are missing or unaccounted for. "There were some issues where people were calling in, trying to get through, and they couldn't do that, so we fixed that."

Pennington then apologized for not being able to fulfill his promise, made at that morning's press conference, to provide an updated number of reports of missing and unaccounted for individuals.

"The last number I had given you was 176," Pennington said on March 25. "That number went up, and then down, and up and down, and the reason it went up and down today, and that we don't have a solid number, is because Darrington received power, Internet and phone capabilities today, and they started reporting in. It was such an influx to the Call Center that, as opposed to coming out here and giving you a number that's just not accurate, I want to wait until tomorrow and put those numbers together for you more solidly."

Three Snohomish County Sheriff's officers, who are experts in missing persons, have taken on the task of consolidating the Department of Emergency Management's multiple lists of reportedly missing and unaccounted for people.

Another positive development that Pennington was able to pass on is that the county is activating a donation management plan, that will be coordinated through the Seventh-day Adventist Church, with locations in Darrington and Arlington whose exact addresses are being determined.

"Volunteers have been absolutely amazing," Pennington said on March 25. "They are doing exactly what they should do in this area. They're impacted very, very hard, and they want to contribute. Volunteers were registered as much as humanly possible as emergency workers in the state of Washington, to give them protections and integrate them with our response, and the chiefs and the Incident Management Team and the urban rescue teams have done an amazing job today of pulling that together. We are good on volunteers [...] we've got the volunteers, we've got the resources and we've got the assets that we need to continue to respond."

A volunteer rescue worker had been injured while working in the debris area of the Oso landslide earlier that day. The injury occurred when a small piece of debris was thrown up in the helicopter wash and struck him in the head. The injuries appeared minor, and the volunteer was transported to an area hospital for evaluation.

Pennington concluded his prepared remarks by informing the public of a new Crisis Care Hotline, at 800-584-3578, for those in the community who have been affected by the landslide.

"It's 24-hour crisis counseling and intervention," Pennington said. "This is not just for victims. It's not just for the relatives. This is something that is established for us as a community. I'm impacted personally. You're impacted, because I see it on your faces," he told the assembled news reporters. "This is for individuals who are struggling with how to deal with this. We're all parents, or brothers, or sisters, or husbands, and when we hear about the loss of life, it eventually catches up to us. It's very important that we all begin that process of addressing that. Don't suppress it."

Looking to the next day, Hots predicted that debris removal would continue on March 26, with additional heavy equipment being brought in to assist on both the Oso and Darrington sides of the landslide.

Snohomish County Public Works, in conjunction with the Washington State Department of Transportation, expects to open the Mountain Loop Highway at approximately 1 p.m. on March 26. While this will provide drivers with a second route to reach Darrington, authorities advise them to exercise caution on the rural mountain highway.

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