ARLINGTON, Wash. — Eighteen people were unaccounted for a day after a terrifying wall of mud and debris destroyed as many as 30 homes in rural northwestern Washington state and killed at least three people, authorities said Sunday.
Authorities said that because of the quicksand-like mud, it was too dangerous to send rescuers into the stricken area. Searchers instead flew over the one-square-mile mudslide in helicopters, looking for signs of life.
Some of the missing may have been able to get out on their own, authorities said.
Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots said at a news briefing that authorities suspect “people are out there, but it’s far too dangerous to get responders out there on that mudflow.”
Authorities were also trying to determine how to get responders on the ground safely, Hots said, likening the mudflow to quicksand.
Officials described the mudslide as “a big wall of mud and debris” that blocked about one mile of State Route 530 near the town of Oso, about 55 miles north of Seattle. It was reported about 60 feet deep in some areas.
Authorities believe the slide was caused by groundwater saturation from recent heavy rainfall.
Several people — including an infant — were critically injured and as many as 30 houses were destroyed. The slide wiped out one neighborhood; “that neighborhood is not there anymore,” Hots said.
Hots said the number of missing is fluid and could change because some people may have been in cars and on roads when the slide hit just before 11 a.m. Saturday.
The mud was so thick and deep that searchers turned back late Saturday after attempting to reach an area where voices were heard crying for help.
Rescuers couldn’t hear any signs of life once they got closer, and the decision was made to retreat due to safety concerns, Hots said.