Youngest victim pulled from Washington state mudslide

DARRINGTON, Wash.(CBS) -- The body of the youngest victim so far of Saturday's mudslide was pulled from the wreckage on Thursday, for many bringing home the enormity of the tragedy.

Four-month-old Sanoah Violet Huestis was with her grandmother, 45-year-old Christina A. Jefferds, when the slide hit the community of Oso, about 55 miles northeast of Seattle. The grandmother also died in the slide and was the first victim to be identified by the Snohomish County medical examiner's office.

Sanoah's great-uncle Dale Petersen said that when he arrived on the scene to help look for survivors on Thursday, work had stopped in his area. A firefighter told him the child's body had been discovered.

"We spent a lot of time together," he said of the baby girl known as "Snowy."

Earlier searchers were able to identify carpet from the infant's bedroom, but a log jam initially stood in the way of a more thorough effort to find her.

"A little baby that hasn't gotten a start yet in life," her grandfather, Doug Massingale, had said while he waited for word about her. "It's too much."

It rained much of the day on Thursday, making conditions even worse for the searchers struggling in deep mud.

The number of fatalities is expected to rise considerably by Friday, authorities said. Search and rescue crews found the job no easier than when they started sixteen bodies had been recovered in addition to Sanoah's and officials say at least nine more had been found as of Wednesday night for a total of 26 confirmed deaths.

"As far as I'm concerned we're still in a rescue mode," Snohomish County District 21 Fire Chief Travis Hots said Thursday. "I haven't lost hope yet and there's a lot of people up there that haven't lost hope yet."

He said rescuers were still using dogs and digging with shovels and even their hands. Heavier equipment is brought in only after areas are cleared and there are no signs of life or bodies, he said.

There are 90 people confirmed missing, with another 35 who authorities are unsure were in the area when a hillside collapsed Saturday morning 55 miles northeast of Seattle.

Scores of people once thought missing in the mudslide have turned up safe, but that provided little relief to rescuers who are tasked with bringing closure to the relatives and friends of those who have not been found.

One of the victims found under the mud Wednesday was Summer Raffo. Her brother, Dayn Brunner, a local police officer, has been part of the search all week. He told CBS News correspondent John Blackstone that it was more of a relief than painful when he learned that she was dead.

"In the sense that, OK, this is closure, and just seeing the car just put the exclamation point on the amount of devastation, the amount of force and the amount of physics that were involved with that mountain coming down," Brunner said.

Hope of a miracle discovery of a survivor has faded as the search entered its sixth day Thursday, but Hots said crews were going to exhaust all options in the effort to find somebody alive in the devastation.

"My heart is telling me I'm not giving up yet," he said. "If we find just one more person alive, it's all worth it to me."

Becky Bach watches and waits, hoping that search crews find her brother, his wife, her 20-year-old great-niece and the young woman's fiance.

"Realistically ... I honestly don't think they're going to find them alive," Bach said, crying. "But as a family, we're trying to figure out what to do if they find no bodies."

Seismic readings show there were actually two landslides on Saturday. The largest came first, lasting two minutes, flowing across the river, burying most of the community of Oso and cutting off the only highway through the valley. The tremors were felt by seismic equipment 170 miles away.
Four minutes later a smaller, second slide fell into the valley.

Trying to recover every corpse would be impractical and dangerous.

The debris field is about a square mile and 30 to 40 feet deep in places, with a surface that includes quicksand-like muck, rain-slickened mud and ice. The terrain is difficult to navigate on foot and makes it treacherous or impossible to bring in heavy equipment.

To make matters worse, the pile is laced with other hazards that include fallen trees, propane and septic tanks, twisted vehicles and countless shards of shattered homes.

The knowledge that some victims could be abandoned to the earth is difficult to accept.

"We have to get on with our lives at some point," Bach said.

Bach spoke via phone about a wedding the family had planned for summer at the rural home that was destroyed. And how, she wondered, do you plan a funeral without a body? "We'll probably just have a memorial, and if they find the bodies eventually, then we'll deal with that then."

A death certificate, issued by the state, is legal proof that someone has died. Families often need them to settle their affairs. The authority to issue them starts with a county medical examiner or coroner, said Donn Moyer, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Health. If and when it appears there is no chance of finding someone, people can ask the county to start that process.

Other survivors began to grow impatient Wednesday that they weren't allowed to return to the sites of their homes to search for their valuables and keepsakes.

"This isn't right. All of us who are still alive need to have access and find what we can of our lives," said Robin Youngblood, who said her son-in-law was turned away from the slide site.

Comments are posted from viewers like you and do not always reflect the views of this station. powered by Disqus