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Originally published March 23, 2014 at 9:05 PM | Page modified March 24, 2014 at 9:21 AM

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Worst fears move closer to reality for families who wait

Hope is diminishing for relatives anxious for word of missing loved ones believed to be buried beneath tons of mud and debris in the Oso mudslide.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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DARRINGTON — Summer Raffo’s family knows she’s buried somewhere amid a milewide swamp of shattered homes and broken lives.

On Saturday, the 36-year-old Raffo was driving on Highway 530 from Darrington to a horseshoeing appointment in Ryan Falls east of Arlington at the time when a hillside broke free, inundating everything in its path. Raffo’s family hasn’t heard from her since.

Her relatives rushed to the scene and broke past barricades along with several other families desperate to find loved ones in the muck.

All they found was wreckage, mud and unmistakable signs of death.

“You can’t imagine the devastation until you see it yourself,” said Dayn Brunner, 42, Raffo’s brother. “There were bodies everywhere, cars cut in half.”

For more than five hours, Raffo’s brothers, nephews, sister and friends waded more than waist-deep into the thick, unstable mud.

Raffo’s sister, 16-year-old Brittney Smith said she fell into a puddle of blood as she slowly inched toward an area where she heard girls screaming.

Only when search-and-rescue crews threatened to arrest Raffo’s family did they finally retreat from the scene and head back to Darrington.

”You just want to keep on moving every log yourself until you find her,” Brunner said Sunday after a community meeting in Darrington.

Many of the more than 400 people who showed up at the Darrington Community Center expressed growing frustration and helplessness as the search continued for more than a dozen people listed among the missing.

Sunday’s search of the unstable, debris-strewn slide area failed to turn up a single survivor as the death toll climbed to eight.

One woman searching for her friend’s husband and children, ages 2, 5 and 13, asked Arlington Fire Department Deputy Chief Tom Cooper if rescuers had even searched through the hard-hit Steelhead Drive neighborhood, where many are believed missing.

“I can guarantee you the rescuers have no idea whether they’ve searched Steelhead Drive yet. It’s just a sea of mud,” said Gregg Sieloff, deputy incident commander for the Northwest Washington Incident Management Team.

“Yesterday, we saved a rescuer who got stuck in the mud. He went in waist-deep and couldn’t move. Now we’re doing all rescues by helicopter.”

Families submitted photos of missing loved ones, their cars and homes to rescue personnel.

Brunner and Raffo’s husband of two years, Joel Sundstrom, 30, did that for Raffo, but search-and-rescue personnel already know her face.

Sundstrom said Raffo is a farrier on the side, a full-time janitor at Darrington High School and the fifth in a line of 13 close-knit kids who are hard to miss in a small logging town.

“We’re preparing for the worst, and hoping for the best. I know that’s pretty cliché,” Brunner said, trying to maintain optimism with Raffo’s husband, father and other siblings nearby. “But deep down, I kind of know she’s gone.”

Twenty-eight miles away in Arlington, Barbara Welsh was awaiting word of her husband, Bill, an electrician. She hadn’t heard from him since Saturday morning when he left their Arlington home to install a water heater at a house on Steelhead Drive.

She was consoled by Gov. Jay Inslee on Sunday at a news conference, where relatives of missing people waited for news.

Welsh spent the remainder of Sunday at the couple’s home with their grown sons hoping for word from her husband of 43 years.

Meanwhile, family and friends of the missing trudged in and out of the Red Cross shelter at Post Middle School in Arlington as hope dimmed with the passing hours.

Reed Miller, 75, suspects that his 47-year-old son, Joseph, was buried in their house along Steelhead Drive. Miller was out buying groceries while his son enjoyed his morning coffee, when the slide hit.

“All these ambulances came screaming by. The checkout lady said there was a slide,” Miller recalls. He drove toward his home and couldn’t reach Steelhead Drive.

“I’ve been sitting here waiting to see what happens, to find Joe. He could be buried under 10 feet of mud,” said Miller, who bunked on a cot at the middle school Saturday night.

Miller mentioned a neighbor, a volunteer firefighter, whose wife and granddaughter are missing.

“People say it’s the work of God. I say it’s the work of the devil. God would not do this,” said Miller, who left the shelter Sunday to stay with relatives.

Most of the 27 people who stayed at the Red Cross shelter Saturday night have missing relatives, said Diane Hermanson, a mental-health counselor. “They don’t have information they want, what has happened to the people they love,” she said.

Chaplain Ralph Fry said his job at the shelter is mainly to listen, not to give advice.

Fry expects he will be notifying shelter residents about deaths, as the rescue mission turns into a recovery mission in the slide zone.

“The communication line is so slow because of the situation at the site; it’s been hard to get information,” Fry said. “Information always relieves suffering. Even if it’s bad, they at least know what is going on..”

Staff reporter Lynn Thompson contributed to this report.

Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or

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