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A Tour Of The Tragedy In Washington Mudslide Zone


In Snohomish County, Wash., crews are still digging through tons of mud and debris trying to find survivors. Some 90 people are still missing after Saturday's landslide. At least 25 are dead.

Reporters are now being let into the mudslide zone. Among them is Tom Banse, of Northwest News Network. He joins us now and Tom, describe what you saw on this tour earlier today.

TOM BANSE, BYLINE: Well, Audie, it's a scene that hits you in the gut even if you know, like I do, what to expect. And it reminds me most, actually, of Mount St. Helen's, which is in another part of Washington state, and the similarly deadly, 1980 eruption and aftermath of that. A fire battalion chief was leading us today up to a bluff where we got a view over a wide, bumpy plain that's almost uniformly dark gray. Not ash in this case, but just gray mud and clay.

And there's water collecting in low spots and splintered, fully grown trees scattered all over looking like spilled matchsticks, maybe. And around the edges of this forbidding debris field are signs of homes and human structures that are just barely - really unrecognizable, just all mixed up like they've been tumbled in a half-mile long washing machine or something.

CORNISH: And you call this a forbidding debris field. I mean, what are workers on the ground actually doing to make their way through it?

BANSE: Well, it's tough. And it continued to rain here today, which is really not helpful. And if the searchers aren't careful, they can sink into this slop up to their thighs or their armpits, even, and need rescuing themselves. So today, I saw teams building log bridges. Elsewhere in the debris field, teams are using donated plywood to make pathways across it. And so what we have here is kind of a human-scale arterial network developing from the edges deeper into this square-mile disaster scene.

But there are still spots here where rescue workers would like to bring in heavy machinery to lift off roofs or whole tree stumps. But they can't get in with the heavy machinery because the terrain is like a swamp, to quote the local fire chief.

CORNISH: Obviously, you're describing a lot of danger that remains here. But I understand family members of some of the victims are also being allowed up to the landslide area.

BANSE: That's right. It was, to be honest, strangely quiet when I first got out of the van where the highway simply dead-ends here at a wall of mud and a former hillside. And I could see the rescue rigs and yellow backhoes and little Bobcat loaders staged there but none of the activity and motor noises that, it turned out, I would hear later. And the reason why was that a small group of relatives had been escorted in to see the place where one or maybe more of their loved ones presumably took their last breaths. It was a really somber and powerful moment and it's sadly happening multiple times a day.

CORNISH: Lastly, Tom, they're still calling this a rescue as well as a recovery mission. But it's day six. How much hope is there that survivors might still be found?

BANSE: That's absolutely right. And the battalion chief who showed me around today again said as much, that we're still treating this as a rescue mission. But the reality is sinking in that it's really unlikely that anyone is still alive out there. There had been no signs of life detected since Saturday night. And with that, the enormity of the loss facing this community is sinking in. And today, I heard comparisons for the first time to whether this will be the worst or among the worst natural disasters in Pacific Northwest history.

CORNISH: That's Tom Banse of the Northwest News Network. He was speaking to us from the site of the massive mudslide near Oso, Washington, north of Seattle. Tom, thanks so much for your reporting.

BANSE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Banse covers business, environment, public policy, human interest and national news across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be heard during "Morning Edition," "Weekday," and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.