Washington mudslide death toll climbs, yet hope remains

Updated 8:46 AM EDT, Mon March 31, 2014

Story highlights

Death toll up to 21; 30 remain missing

Pastor in rural Washington shares reflections from Sunday service

Washington governor tells CNN that searchers still hope to find survivors

Locals recall what they were doing when the landslide struck on March 22

Darrington, Washington CNN —  

Pastor Gary Ray stood before his congregation Sunday, prepared for people to shake their fists at God. Such reactions in the only church in Oso, Washington, would have been entirely appropriate.

After all, it was in this rural community – between Arlington and Darrington, along State Route 530 – that a mudslide last weekend ravaged the landscape, swallowing homes, killing at least 21 and leaving 30 still missing. Not a soul in the room, where the pastor guessed 115 gathered, had gone untouched by the horror that rocked their quiet world.

Instead, amid the fear, the unknown and the hurt, the pastor of Oso Community Chapel was surprised by what people shared.

“I was expecting someone to say, ‘I lost my brother or I lost my house and I’m angry’ – and that would have been OK,” he said by phone Sunday. “But today what we heard was, ‘I was in trouble and a stranger stopped and helped me.’”

That looking out for each other, the coming together, is just one example of the good that can appear around the corner when tragedy strikes, he said.

“People say in times of disaster, it brings out the best and the worst in people. But I’m just seeing the best,” he said. “I’m seeing patience and sacrifice. Character is being developed. I don’t know what the future holds, but I do hope for some unexpected blessings.”

He’s not alone.

“We are hoping for a miracle,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee told CNN’s “State of the Union.” “We are going to do everything we can to look for that miracle and care for these (affected) families.”

The number of people unaccounted for after the March 22 landslide dropped Saturday to 30 from 90, officials said. In addition to the 21 confirmed fatalities, another four bodies have been discovered in the debris field, Jason Biermann, a program manager for the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management, said Sunday evening at a news conference.

Inslee said officials would be in an active rescue mode as long as there was any possibility of finding survivors.

The governor pointed to the deep grief the community feels, but said it also is very resilient and that he is amazed by acts of courage and inspiration by the people involved in search efforts.

“These people are showing some courage and resolution and they are hanging together too,” he told CNN. “This is a place that is pretty tough.”

Inslee said the conditions searchers face are extremely difficult. Sometimes it takes five minutes just to go 50 feet, he said.

Emergency management officials had said all week they expected the number of people unaccounted for would drop dramatically as residents of Darrington and nearby Oso turned up.

“We expected that number to drop in part due to a combination of finding people who registered as safe and well, and cross-referencing the list with confirmed identities of victims at the (medical examiner’s) office,” Biermann said.

Biermann said the challenge of identifying victims is becoming more complicated as search operations continue.