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Families and emergency workers hope for miracles in search for Washington mudslide survivors

March 25, 2014 at 6:20 PM EST
Rescue teams labored on in the rain and over saturated terrain in Oso, Wash., four days since a deadly mudslide struck and the last living survivor was found. As the search continues, questions have arisen about whether the disaster might have been foreseen. Jeffrey Brown interviews Akiko Fujita from ABC News for an update on the efforts.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: In Washington State this evening, there are no new leads being reported yet in the search for victims or survivors of that enormous mudslide. Authorities believe the death toll is likely to change before the day is out. So far, at least 14 people are confirmed dead, and possibly as many as 176 unaccounted for.

The search continues about 50 miles northeast of Seattle, in the small town of Oso.

Jeffrey Brown has the latest on the difficulties of the rescue efforts.

JEFFREY BROWN: The search teams labored on four days after disaster struck and with rain likely to make their job that much tougher. Coupled with the difficulty is the fading hope of finding any more survivors.

But amid the muck, the local fire chief insisted today they’re not giving up.

TRAVIS HOTS, Snohomish County Fire District 21: Rescue or recovery, we’re doing both. And that’s not going to change the pace at what we’re working here, whether we call it rescue or recovery. We’re still in rescue mode in my mind, and we are throwing everything that we have at this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Many families, though, fear the worst.

Rae Smith’s daughter is still among the missing.

RAE SMITH: My 16-year-old daughter, my adult son and his two young sons were down there digging with their hands trying to find her, trying to find any sign of her.

JEFFREY BROWN: As the search continues, questions have arisen on whether the disaster might have been foreseen. The Seattle Times reports scientists warned in 1999 of — quote — “the potential for a large catastrophic failure.”

Still, officials stressed today a slide of this magnitude is hard to predict.

John Pennington is emergency management director for Snohomish County.

JOHN PENNINGTON, Emergency Management Director, Snohomish County, Washington: There’s been warnings and advanced notifications of the high risk for landslides. We have done everything we could. My heart goes out to all of these individuals. We’re going to get to the bottom of this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Officials have no estimate of how long it will take to get to the bottom of all the mud, only the near certainty that the death count will keep rising.

And for the latest from Washington, I’m joined by Akiko Fujita, who has been covering the story for ABC News.

Well, thanks for joining us.

Tell us more about the problems they are having with this rescue. It remains a dangerous scene there, right?

AKIKO FUJITA, ABC News: That’s right, Jeffrey.

You know, the biggest concern is the weather. It’s raining again today. Yesterday, search crews had a break from the rain. They were able to recover some more bodies. But the concern is that you are dealing with this terrain that is so saturated. And officials keep using that word quicksand. It’s like quicksand when they are out there.

And with more rain and more heavy rainfall expected later in the week, they have had to pull back crews at times because they are worried about their safety as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well…

AKIKO FUJITA: So, that has been the biggest hurdle in getting to any potential survivors and of course identifying the victims as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, how many people are involved in the effort at any given time, and how are they dealing with those quicksand situations?

AKIKO FUJITA: Well, we know there’s more than 200 crews on the ground now. The National Guard is involved, state search teams. We have got search dogs on the ground, local volunteers.

You know, they are out there using heat thermal devices. They have also used pinging cell phones. But when you look at this area, some of the mud is 15-feet deep. And that’s made it difficult for them to even get into that area.

So, that’s where the helicopters have helped them in the search, but keep in mind, these crews have not found any survivors since Saturday, when the disaster hit. And I think, with every day that goes by, the reality, you know, is starting to look grim.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, has that — do you get the sense from officials that this is in fact no longer a rescue situation, that it really is a sense that people are very unlikely to be alive at this point?

AKIKO FUJITA: Well, they haven’t come out and said that. I think they have been very up front in saying that, look, it’s been three days; we understand the reality.

But there are more than 170 people on that list of names of people who have been unaccounted for. They don’t want to call this a recovery-only mission just yet, because they know families are still waiting to hear from their loved ones or hear what happened to them.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that number, 170, they have said that that’s probably well larger than the possible bodies. Explain that. Explain how they are accounting for that number.

AKIKO FUJITA: That’s right.

You know, they have made it clear that there may be duplicates on that list. But what they have done since yesterday — keep in mind, on Sunday, it was about 20 people that were missing, and then it jumped on Monday.

And what they have said is that they just want people to know what they are dealing with. They are asking for people to call in for anybody that’s missing. They are very vague descriptions in some cases. In some cases, it’s a family member with all the information there. But they are compiling a list and putting it out to the public so they are aware, the public is aware about what officials are dealing with.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about family members? Have you been able to talk to any of them? Are they holding out hope, resigned? What is — what’s — what’s the attitude there?

AKIKO FUJITA: Yes, I think it really depends on those who you speak with.

I think there’s increasing frustration among some family members, the concern that they think the rescue effort is just too slow. We have heard of family members who have gone out on their own and dig through the mud to find any signs of life, and others who are just holding out hope, knowing that crews are out there, more than 200 people, searching for their loved ones.

But I can tell you, with each day, frustration is growing because they just don’t know what happened.

JEFFREY BROWN: And let me ask you finally, briefly, officials are not giving a timeline for this. But is there any sense? Are we talking days, weeks, even longer?

AKIKO FUJITA: They haven’t given any sense of a timeline.

At this point, they are going to continue to search. And, again, like I said earlier, with — with them not wanting to call this a recovery effort, they are not giving up hope here. The head of emergency management said he believes in miracles. And that gives you a sense of where they stand. They know that, to find anybody out there will be a miracle. But they are moving forward with the intent that they will continue until every single person is accounted for.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Akiko Fujita of ABC News, thanks so much.

AKIKO FUJITA: Thank you.