Oso landslide: How a giant wall of water-saturated earth destroyed a tiny community

This was how last Saturday morning began for Linda McPherson, 68, and her husband, Gary, 78, better known as Mac. They were in their twinned reclining chairs in the living room easing into the day when, without warning, at a few minutes before 11 am, their world and everything around them was shattered.

A giant wall of water-saturated earth destroyed their house in a roar of mud, rock and pulverised forest, destroying much of the tiny community of Oso and killing at least 16 people.

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The McPhersons were swept apart, her in one direction, him in another.

When things stopped moving - the house ripped into pieces and shoved  60 metres from its foundation - Gary McPherson found himself trapped. He could breathe but not reach the surface of the enveloping muck, his leg pinned by a beam of the house he had just been sitting in.

He reached around and found a stick where he lay, perhaps part of his recliner, and began fighting for his life, digging at the mud.

"He was able to poke up through the rubble,’’ said his sister-in-law, Irene Kuntz.


Friends spotted him struggling and dug him out. As they helped him out, he begged his rescuers to leave him and find his wife. But she died.

The numbers are devastating. Sixteen bodies have been recovered so far, with eight more people believed to have been located in the debris but not recovered, Snohomish County officials said on Tuesday night.

Snohomish County's emergency management director, John Pennington, told reporters the tally of missing had dropped dramatically to 90 from 176, Reuters reported, but the fate of as many as 35 more people not officially listed as missing remained uncertain.

Forty-nine homes were destroyed. Officials have yet to release the names of the dead.

The Oso landslide brought down something like three times the volume of mud as there is concrete in Hoover Dam in one momentous cascade, creating a  2.5 square kilometre path of destruction where more than 200 workers combed through mud and rubble in drenching rain, with fading hopes for finding survivors.

As scores of family members waited in suspense for news of loved ones, search teams used high-technology and muscle, digging by hand in places, and pawing the earth with big machines for places of possible refuge: car interiors, corners of houses that had somehow stayed intact.

Cameras and listening devices were being sent down as probes where gaps in the debris suggested hidden air pockets. Search dogs roamed the surface, sniffing for people, while aircraft patrolled from above, watching for any sign that the slope above could slide again.

Teams were also pinging down through the earth, seeking no human response, but rather the countering answer of a mobile phone signal from a phone hidden deep in the earth in a pocket or purse.

Questions also began to swirl about whether the deadly slide should have been foreseen, given the area’s history of geological instability and the numerous smaller slides over the years, notably a sizeable one in 2006 in exactly the same place.

A draft report first described by The Seattle Times, written in 1999 by M2 Environmental Services and obtained from the Army Corps of Engineers, specifically warned of ‘‘the potential for a large catastrophic failure’’ in the valley because of how erosion at the toe of the landslide, caused in part by a nearby river, could help ‘‘reduce stability of the entire slide mass.’’

The next year, another expert, Tracy Drury, offered a similarly dire warning to the Corps, saying that the slide area, known as the Steelhead Haven Landslide, posed ‘‘a significant risk to human lives and private property, since human development of the floodplain in this area has steadily increased’’ since a major slide in 1967.

Emergency management officials said Tuesday that the landslide, or at least one on this scale, was unforeseeable - a product of near-record rains on loose glacial soil.

‘‘We did everything we could,’’ Mr Pennington, referring to efforts to bolster the hillside with retaining walls after the 2006 slide. ‘‘This is just one that hit us.’’

But one resident whose house was demolished by the slide expressed anger that she had not been notified about the dangers.

"Nobody told us when we moved in,’’ said Robin Youngblood, 63, whose family has lived in the region for generations, but who herself moved back into the Oso Valley two years ago. ‘‘I’m really mad at the government.’’ She said there had been logging on the mountain that left little ‘‘to hold that land when it got saturated like that.’’ She had already been contacted about a lawsuit.

The New York Times