Eighteen people were unaccounted for a day after a terrifying wall of mud, trees and debris destroyed as many as 30 houses in rural northwestern Washington state and killed at least three people, authorities said Sunday.
Because of the quicksand-like mud, authorities said 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.
Authorities were also trying to determine how to get responders on the ground safely, Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots said.
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. One neighborhood “is not there anymore,” Hots said.
About 20 to 30 people have been displaced, Snohomish County Executive John Lovick said.
The number of missing could change because some people may have been in cars and on roads when the slide hit just before 11 a.m. Saturday, Hots said.
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.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee described the scene as “a square mile of total devastation” after flying over the disaster area Sunday.
“There is a full scale, 100 percent aggressive rescue going on right now,” said Inslee, who proclaimed a state of emergency.
Two people were killed at the scene, and one of the people who had been rescued died at a hospital.