Families pursued to their deaths by a wall of mud

By Washington, Raf Sanchez in Darrington

A worker uses a chain saw at the scene of the deadly mudslide in Oso, Washington. Photo / AP
A worker uses a chain saw at the scene of the deadly mudslide in Oso, Washington. Photo / AP

Highway 530 once led drivers on a winding route along tree-lined valleys between the Pacific Ocean and the snow-capped Cascade Mountains.

Watch: 'Situation very grim' in mudslide search

But now at mile point 49, just beyond the rural town of Oso, Washington, the navigable road ends abruptly at the flashing lights of a police checkpoint. Beyond that lie death, questions - and the fading hopes of a remote rural community engulfed by a torrent of almost unimaginable horror.

The "530 mudslide", as it is known here, struck at 11am on Saturday (local time), bringing a 1.6km-wide wave of debris down the hill and crashing on to the family homes of Steelhead Drive.

The mud burst through doors and shattered windows instantly, a relentless wall of sludge that pursued its victims up the stairs until there was nowhere left for them to run.

"When we dig into these houses they are full of mud from floor to ceiling," said Dennis Fenstermaker, a local fire chief. "We have a house where there is a car in the attic, it just punched through the floors of the home."

The official number of people killed is 24, but the total still unaccounted for is an alarming 176 and authorities admit that chances of finding more survivors beneath the mud that destroyed 30 homes, along with cars and anyone unlucky enough to be passing by, are dimming. "This is a 9/11 type event for our community," said Mr Fenstermaker. "There's always hope but it's obviously diminishing greatly."

Emergency vehicles fill Highway 530 leading to the scene of the deadly mudslide. Photo / AP

Among the dozens still missing are Billy Spillers and his children Jo Jo, 13, Kaylee, five, and Brook, two.

The children's mother, Jonielle, was out of the house at work and their four-year-old brother Jacob was pulled barefoot from the mud by a helicopter.

The infant, shivering and smeared with dirt, was one of eight rescued by the helicopter on Saturday. No survivors have been found since.

The fate of the Spillers and other missing children weighed heavily on the people of neighbouring Darrington as they gathered in the high school for a community meeting and an update on the search late in the evening.

"Knowing that there are kids buried out there brings out the mother in anyone," said Shawna Richter, who has five children. "We're still hoping. That's all we have left: to hold on to hope."

While they pray for the missing children, they also hold close their own, trying to shield them from the tragedy and chaos around them.

Sue-Ann Campbell's 19-year-old son Aaron was among the first to rush to the scene and pulled a body from the mud.

"Afterwards he was quiet and distant, he wasn't himself," she recalled. "Finally, he turned to me and said, 'Mom, it's gone, it's all gone'."

Searchers stand at a tree line at the scene of the deadly mudslide. Photo / AP

More than 200 searchers and dogs continue to clamber through a muddy landscape that has been violently re-ordered by the slide.

Where there was once a hill, there is now a vast scrape of fresh earth. Where there were once houses, only the tops of their roofs can now be seen, peeking out above 6 metres of mud.

Local people who have walked the paths and hills of the area for decades say the scene is unrecognisable; trees that were once landmarks now lie like broken twigs in the swathe of dirt.

For the most part, Darrington has welcomed the legions of outsiders who have descended on their town of just 1,347 people.

Schoolchildren take shifts making sandwiches and the town's gym, home of the Darrington Loggers basketball team, has been converted into a dormitory for exhausted rescuers.

"We're doing well under the circumstances, we're pulling together and united," Dan Rankin, Darrington's mayor, said as he hugged the daughter of one of his constituents.

But there is also frustration among the people of the town, who want to put their knowledge and their generations of logging skills to work to help rescue their friends, family and neighbours. "We know these woods better than anyone coming from outside," said Jesse Russell, a 65-year-old nurse, as she nodded towards the rodeo ground where US government agents sent by President Barack Obama are camped beneath a fading sign offering $5 bingo and dinner.

"People want to help and don't want to be told they can't."

Some, like the family of 36-year-old Summer Raffo, have defied police orders to stay away and cut through the woods to search for loved ones, eventually leading to threats of arrest.

Mrs Raffo, a skilled horse farrier, did not live in the area but was driving through on her way to shoe a horse when the mud came down. She is still among the missing.

"She would just walk right up to the horses and calm them down," said her friend, Denise Clark. "She was so strong, she was no girlie girl. We're still hoping and praying to see her again. I'm not giving up until I know for sure she's gone."

- Daily Telegraph UK

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