Mudslide survivors, rescuers tell their stories of tragic day
A narrative of the Snohomish County mudslide based on Seattle Times interviews with survivors, rescuers and friends and family of the dead and missing; police- and fire-dispatch tapes; and photographs and videos taken by Times staff, rescuers and witnesses.
Larry Taylor / Special to The Seattle Times
Marcus Yam / The Seattle Times
Michael Lincoln woke to banging and screams.
He and his wife had been sleeping in on a lazy Saturday morning at his house along state Highway 530. Now his son’s girlfriend, Amy Miles, was pounding on the bedroom door.
“There’s a flash flood!” she screamed. “Or something!”
Miles had packed her boyfriend’s lunch and had watched him drive off to work. She’d been on the porch, about to walk his parents’ yellow lab, Rocco, when she heard a tremendous rumbling and snapping. She looked up and saw Douglas firs falling and breaking and splashes of water shooting up through the woods. Mud and tree limbs raced up the long driveway toward the porch in waves.
“I actually thought it was the end of the world,” she says.
She ran and woke Lincoln, 50, who bolted outside in a T-shirt and sweatpants. He saw a river of wet earth crashing toward his home. He tugged on his gardening boots.
“The noise was awful,” he says. “It was the sound of tens of thousands of things hitting each other.”
He paced, unsure what he was seeing. Then it registered: mudslide.
“The direction it was coming from ... there’s nothing there. You can’t imagine the scope. Those trees must have come from almost a mile away.”
Miles feared her boyfriend, Quinten, might have been hit by whatever this was. She called — and he picked up on the first ring.
The river of sludge settled, not 20 feet from Lincoln’s house. Lincoln walked to the highway and sank to his waist. He looked in both directions. All he saw was destruction.
With a jolt, he thought of his neighbors, Cory and Julie. Their house was a pile of rubble.
He thought of his other neighbors, Linda and Mac. Their home had been pushed more than 100 feet and split in two.
Lincoln didn’t know what to do. He started pacing and shouting: “Hello? Is anybody there?” He noticed a stranger doing the same.
From all this wreckage they heard a voice. And they heard tapping.
Lincoln called 911.
The morning’s first 911 caller, at 10:44 a.m.: “Wow, it’s really flooding badly. ... Holy crap!”
The second caller: “Oh yeah, man, I got a big emergency.”
The seventh caller, crying: “The houses are gone! ... All I see is dirt ... Hundreds of trees have fallen ... There are so many people yelling for help.”
Sierra Sansaver and her boyfriend bounced down Highway 530 from Arlington in his Dodge pickup. They stopped in tiny Trafton, where he grabbed a drink and a deli burrito. He was almost back to the truck when he spun around and wandered back inside for another packet of ranch dressing.
“Oh my god, can we just go?” she asked.
Back on the road minutes later they rounded a corner to find mud, tree trunks, downed power lines and parts of houses littering the roadway.
They’d missed the slide by two minutes.
Emergency vehicles arrived, and a man in a bucket truck cut electricity to the downed wires. Someone heard a scream near a crumpled blue house. Everyone got quiet, listening. Then Sansaver heard it, too — a high-pitched wail. Several men barreled into the muck.
“There’s a baby out here!” someone shouted.
State Trooper Rocky Oliphant raced in and snagged pieces of house — trusses, metal, roofing, plywood — to build a path back for the rescuers. A man came across — holding the baby.
This story is based on Seattle Times interviews with survivors, rescuers and friends and family of the dead and missing. It also draws on a review of 16 hours of police- and fire-dispatch tapes and photographs and videos taken by Times staff, rescuers and witnesses. Documents relied upon include: police reports; land-use records; state records of timber harvests; State Patrol Trooper Rocky Oliphant’s notes about this event; and geological reports and memos about the Hazel slope from 1952, 1961, 1969, 1988, 1999 and 2006, most filed with state or federal agencies.
Within minutes, a sense of horror crept into the voices of police and firefighters responding to the 911 calls.
Snohomish County would put two helicopters in the air. The Navy in Everett sent a third.
Rescuers launched piecemeal operations on the fringes of a massive and treacherous debris field. They worried about a shifting bog, in places more than 20 feet deep. They worried about the Stillaguamish River, dammed by the slide, backing up, rising — an inch and a half every seven minutes.
“That thing could break loose at any second,” the command post radioed.
Calls went out for more police and firefighters. Calls went out for a hydrologist and geologist. One call asked for “every available chaplain.”
Crews began to grasp how many victims there might be. The command post asked about the largest neighborhood just across the river from the hill. Snohawk 10, the first helicopter in the air, supplied the answer.
“We have confirmed debris from houses off of West Steelhead Drive,” the pilot radioed, dejection in his voice.
“If we can get more manpower to search the debris for possible victims, that would be great,” he said.
As the ground team moved in, someone radioed up to the chopper.
“Do you have any indication that there could be life down there?”
“Not at this time.”
Elaine Thompson / The Associated Press
Larry Taylor / Special to The Seattle Times
Robin Youngblood had been sitting in her living room on Steelhead Drive with a friend from the Netherlands when she heard a cracking. Through the window she saw mud, 25 feet high, coming.
The wave crashed into the house and sent both women tumbling, the slurry caking their nostrils and mouths. Youngblood, 63, crawled onto a clothes dryer and what was left of her roof, floating in 3 feet of wet earth. Jetty Dooper sat on another appliance and part of a door. They screamed for someone to call 911, then waited, shivering.
Randy Fay, a volunteer helicopter-rescue technician with Snohomish County, scanned the landscape below, looking for signs of life. Whisking over the hummocks and ruins in Snohawk 10, he was numb. Nothing appeared intact: “It was like this moon landscape, with pickup sticks everywhere.”
He spied Youngblood and Dooper — they were waving — and lowered down to them. Youngblood’s home was in pieces, but she’d spotted one prized possession, a dirt-streaked painting of a Cherokee warrior. Fay loaded her onto a litter, then grabbed the painting and followed her up.
“That’s about all she’s got left.”
The chopper dropped Youngblood by the roadside and returned to the air.
Fay and the pilot spotted two men fighting through the mushy silt, trying to save a child. One man reached the boy, 4-year-old Jacob Spillers. But both man and child were stuck.
Fay realized the boy was about the age of his grandson. “If that was Eli, I’d do whatever I had to do,” he would later say.
While the helicopter hovered, Fay climbed down onto a giant muddy mound and threw a line. The man tied the rope to Jacob, and Fay hauled him in.
Growing up, Fay had traipsed through muddy Oklahoma river bottoms, losing pairs of boots as the earth sucked them off. This was 10 times worse.
When Jacob was yanked from the muck, his pants fell off. Fay hoisted him, cold and shivering, into the helicopter, its heater on full blast. Then Snohawk 10 flew Jacob to the roadside, where he was left in Youngblood’s care.
“I stripped him down, wrapped him in blankets, told him I was a grandmother and I would hug him until help arrived,” Youngblood said.
Jacob’s mother, Jonielle Spillers, was at work when the slide hit. Unable to get home, she called hospitals until she found Jacob. Missing or dead are Jacob’s father and three kids — Jovon, 13, Kaylee, 5, and Brooke, 2.
Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times
Courtesy of Amy Miles
“I can hear him tapping underneath. And yelling at us,” Mike Lincoln told the 911 dispatcher.
Lincoln was the 10th caller to 911. At first, he couldn’t tell where the sounds were coming from. But then he knew: The yelling was coming from the house split in two. It was Gary “Mac” McPherson.
Mac was 81. He and Lincoln had chatted once or twice in the evening, when Lincoln walked his dog. Mac was married to Linda, a former school-board member and librarian.
The McPhersons had lived in their house for more than 40 years. Linda had grown up next door, in the other flattened house that now belonged to Linda’s nephew, Cory Kuntz, and his wife, Julie.
Lincoln had no idea where Cory and Julie were, or if they were OK.
When all became a roar that morning, Mac and Linda had been in their living room, Mac in a fleece bathrobe, in a mission-style chair, Linda with her bags packed for a trip to Houston to see their son. “He didn’t even get a chance to look over at my mom,” their daughter Kate says. “The last memory he had was thinking a tornado hit.”
Caked in mud, able to move only his right hand, Mac had clawed to daylight and waved a decorative spindle, busted from his chair, to catch someone’s eye.
Neighbors and passers-by from the highway searched for tools to free McPherson, and returned with chain saws and a crowbar. Lincoln yelled for an ax. Miles ran to get one from a woodpile and sank to her knees. “It just ate you,” she says of the mud.
The men started cutting through two-by-fours and the roof as emergency crews arrived. People could smell leaking propane. A firefighter shouted to the gathering crowd: “Nobody light a cigarette!”
Amy Miles snapped a photo. It was 11:35 a.m. — 51 minutes after the first 911 call.
Lincoln saw McPherson’s fingers and then his face, scratched and bloody. “We pulled him out of his chair and carried him down off the roof,” Lincoln says. “He was telling us about how he was a fighter and how he’s going to fight through this. Then he started crying and saying, ‘My wife!’ ”
Rescuers found Linda, limp, and carried her from the rubble. She was already dead. They laid her down and covered her up.
Near the McPhersons’ home, emergency workers spotted another body in the mud and debris. They recovered the body and laid it next to Linda’s.
For Lincoln, there was little left to do. Rescuers urged everyone back to their cars. Lincoln wandered toward the highway, spotting a few people he knew. They saw yet another body, outside a wrecked car. Lincoln asked his wife to bring a sheet. He stood there a moment, taking in his neighborhood, and then spied one more corpse, wrapped around a stump, clothes torn off.
By then, Lincoln had been going for hours. His gardening boots, now filled with mud, felt like 20-pound weights. The horror of the day was catching up.
“My knees were shaking, my hands were shaking,” he says.
An aid worker told Lincoln: “Get your family and just get out of here.”
Marcus Yam / The Seattle Times
Somewhere, out of sight, a man was screaming.
Darrington volunteer firefighter Jeffery McClelland had waded into the eastern edge of the monstrous slide, near C Post Road along Highway 530. He could tell where the screaming was coming from, but couldn’t see more than a few yards in a landscape that had been turned inside out.
The screaming man said his arm was “barely hanging on.”
McClelland keyed his radio mike: “I need swift-water gear out here. If I can get a partner, I can get to the patient. He basically has one arm amputated.”
The gear came in the back of Aid 38, a Darrington fire-and-rescue truck driven by McClelland’s 57-year-old wife, Jan — another volunteer on the swift-water rescue team. Behind her came Shaylah Dobbins, a 37-year-old mother of three who had kissed her kids goodbye and raced down the hill from White Horse in her Range Rover after her pager went off.
The three suited up — heavy dry suit, safety harnesses, gloves, helmet — and grabbed rope, medical supplies and extrication tools. Jan McClelland took in the scene. Once, the Stillaguamish meandered through poplar and pine. Now it looked like someone had chewed the valley up and spit it out. Every tree was broken or splintered. Giant root-balls, once buried deep, poked into the air. Houses, barns and outbuildings were pancaked or just gone.
Dobbins and the McClellands, roped together, stepped into the muck, walking slowly, deliberately, sometimes falling in to their armpits. Jan worried that every next step would be a “bottomless hole.”
Where they couldn’t go around logs and debris, they pulled themselves up and over. But they couldn’t find a safe path through: The debris was too thick, the ground too unstable. They headed back toward C Post Road.
The man kept screaming.
The three climbed to the end of a wide, flooded meadow a little north of the slide path — and again, waded in. “Even when we got close, you couldn’t see him at first,” Dobbins said.
Finally they found him, sitting at the base of a shattered tree. The slide had carried him across the valley and up the slope on the other side. His left arm hung mangled, the biceps extruding from the skin. He was covered in mud and blood, and shaking. He appeared to be suffering from both shock and hypothermia.
They controlled the bleeding by binding his wound. Jan McClelland stripped off the top of her dry-suit and pulled off the fleece beneath. Dobbins took off her warm hoodie. The women wrapped the man in their clothing and an emergency blanket, and started figuring out how they were going to get him out of there.
They considered using a “Stokes” basket — a sort of wire-cage stretcher — and a rope-and-pulley system to get him across the flooded meadow. But they would need more rope and Jeff McClelland, seeing the victim’s ashen features, didn’t think the man would survive the trip.
Jeff McClelland radioed for help: “We’ve got a patient that we’re losing quickly. He’s critical.”
A helicopter was diverted to a nearby clearing, and the man was flown out.
Jan McClelland said the man had only one question: “What happened?”
Marcus Yam / The Seattle Times
On Saturday afternoon, Lynne Rodgers Miller was on the couch in her home in Ballard, reading the news on her cellphone. There was a landslide in Snohomish County. “Oh, no,” she thought. “Hazel’s gone again.”
Miller is a geologist. So is her husband, Dan. They met in a petrology lab, where rocks get studied under microscopes, because every rock tells a story.
She had to tell him the news.
They knew that slope as the Hazel slide. Dan had walked the slope, analyzed the slope, talked to the community about the slope. In his basement were six manila folders filled with maps and drawings and reports on the slope, including one he’d written in 1999 for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
He had broken that report into discrete sections, covering the slope’s history (“active for over half a century”); materials (“the sand is unconsolidated and exhibits no cohesion”); geomorphology (“four mechanisms of mass-movement”); topography (“river erosion into slope toes”); and future activity (“potential for a large catastrophic failure”).
Inside those six folders were records of slides before — 1949, 1951, 1967, 1988, 2006 — but those were just the big ones, the “debris avalanches.” Some had dammed the Stillaguamish, making it divert, pushing it south. Between avalanches, the hillside oozed. Miller’s folders also included records of failed attempts to control the hillside. In a report to the state in the early 1950s, engineers suggested rerouting the river. But a report from the ’60s said the state missed its chance. The land slotted for the new channel had been platted and the lots sold for summer-cabin sites.
Miller had grown up in Nebraska, not known for big hills. But after getting a bachelor’s in physics he’d gone off to Nepal, to the Himalayas, where he served in the Peace Corps for three years. There he helped build drinking-water systems, only to see landslides destroy all his work. So landslides became a calling; he went on to get a Ph.D. and to co-found a nonprofit, Earth Systems Institute, devoted to landscape dynamics.
When Lynne found Dan and told him the news, he knew it was Hazel, too. It had to be. If only they had listened.
He had studied the slope not only for the federal government, but also for the state Department of Ecology and for a timber company wanting to log on the hill’s plateau. He believed logging could be done above, but only with care and detailed analysis. As for the Stillaguamish below, Miller knew it would pose a threat as long as it continued to erode the hill’s base.
In 2006 Miller had returned to Hazel, which had collapsed again, and diverted the river again, and formed another toe that would be eroded again. But now the river and toe were closer to the homes on Steelhead Drive. He could hardly believe what he saw next: More homes were being built.
He watched them going up while surveying the latest instance of the hill coming down. After all he’d done to document the slope’s instability, the county was still issuing building permits for homes across the river.
Later that year Miller was asked by a community group to talk about the slope. He showed up at a firehouse with a PowerPoint presentation, the first panel titled: “The Hazel Landslide: Déjà vu all over again.”
His 16th slide illustrated what might happen in the future: “movement of a vast volume of material.”
Late Saturday afternoon, commanders decided the ground was too dangerous, especially for rescuers downhill from the pooling water.
Around 4 p.m. an incident commander on the Arlington side of the slide announced a decision “to pull the plug at this time. Those rescue units that are still in, need to withdraw.”
Rescuers were told to go after only those who could be reached by helicopter.
As some rescue workers started to walk out, they heard cries from beneath the muck.
“I need some permission to go ahead and save some of these people real quick so we can get out,” a search-team leader radioed.
“That’s a negative. Nobody is going in there anymore,” the command post responded.
The search team leader said his people were going anyway.
This story was reported by Ken Armstrong, Mike Baker, Gene Balk, Nancy Bartley, Michael J. Berens, Hal Bernton, Jack Broom, Jim Brunner, Mike Carter, Christine Clarridge, Paige Cornwell, Sandi Doughton, Coral Garnick, Dominic Gates, Angel Gonzalez, Sara Jean Green, John Higgins, Erik Lacitis, Mike Lindblom, Amy Martinez, Justin Mayo, Carol Ostrom, Brian M. Rosenthal, Jennifer Sullivan, Lynn Thompson, Janet I. Tu, Lornet Turnbull, Alexa Vaughn, Craig Welch, Miyoko Wolf and Bob Young. It was written by Armstrong, Carter and Welch.
Thomas Durnell was home when the slide hit and is missing. His wife, Deb, was working, and is safe.
Thom and Marcy Satterlee didn’t make it out. Nor did their 19-year-old granddaughter, Delaney Webb, who was visiting. Nor did Webb’s fiancé, who was visiting, too. “We’ve lost four,” says Nichole Webb Rivera, the Satterlees’ daughter and Webb’s mother.
Ron and Gail Thompson left eight minutes before the slide hit, for a trip to Costco.
Irvin and Judith Wood owned a home in the neighborhood as a weekend getaway. Sometimes they’d bring the grandkids. On this weekend, they were away.
Amanda Lennick, an Everett nurse, had just moved into her Steelhead Drive home with its cathedral ceiling and knotty-pine cabinets. Three workers — a plumber, an electrician and a satellite-TV technician — were to arrive that morning. All are missing or dead.
Kristi Everett, a real-estate agent, helped Lennick find the house. The two became friends. “I’m never selling another house there again,” Everett says. “I don’t know why, after the  slide, the Army Corps of Engineers didn’t condemn all the houses.”
By Sunday, the disaster’s enormity was coming into focus. Whole streets were buried under mud that in places reached 30 feet. A volunteer firefighter told of a rescuer who found his own front door, but not his home, wife or child.
A cluster of mud-splattered men, their frustration boiling over, mounted wildcat searches for friends, ignoring barricades. Police even threatened to arrest one of them, Forrest Thompson.
“Right off the bat they should have had every one of the loggers here in there,” Thompson, 18, would tell a reporter. “Climbing across logs and mud all day is what I do for a living.”
Monday morning, John Pennington, head of the county’s Department of Emergency Management, answered reporters’ questions in Arlington, about 16 miles west of the mudslide.
“Before this slide was there any warning that it was about to happen?”
“No, no, this was a completely unforeseen slide,” Pennington said. He fought back a cough. “This came out of nowhere. No warning.”
“A homeowner last night told me he was assured by authorities in ’06 that it was safe. Comment?”
“Well, I heard the same thing. That area was mitigated very heavily. ... It was considered very safe.”
Monday afternoon, Dan Miller received a call from a Seattle Times reporter, asking about Miller’s 1999 report. They met in Miller’s office — on the top floor of the Trinity United Methodist Church in Ballard — and went through his research.
The paper posted a story that night about Miller’s warnings. Within minutes Miller’s phone began to ring. Tuesday morning camera crews affiliated with ABC, CBS and NBC showed up at the church. “It was pretty crowded in there,” Lynne Rodgers Miller says.
It was too late, but now everyone wanted to hear what he had to say.
In the days to come Miller would talk to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and The Associated Press. He’d go on air with the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Al-Jazeera America and Radio New Zealand. He’d be interviewed by Anderson Cooper, Greta Van Susteren and Rachel Maddow. Even The Weather Channel called.
Miller revisited his slide presentation from 2006, then emailed a reporter: “Clearly, we need to find ways to better communicate this type of information to government planners and regulators, and to the public, and to do so in ways that are clear and understandable.”
A few days after the slide, Miller received a call from someone who had been at his community presentation in 2006. The caller recounted how a man had stood in the back of the room and told Miller: “You’re trying to take our land.”
Mike Lincoln had no reference point. He’d never been in the military, never seen death like this.
“Traumatizing is not really the right word. It was haunting,” he says. “I keep seeing those people and thinking, ‘What had they experienced? Did they see it coming?’”
After being advised to get out, Lincoln and his family had grabbed clothes and medication and driven the long way around to Arlington, where they checked into a hotel.
On Monday, Lincoln returned to his job at a food-service-company warehouse. “In my mind, I needed to stick to normalcy,” he says. After a few days, he realized he needed to be with his wife and son. They needed to be together. He took time off.
In the aftermath, there was good news with the bad. Lincoln learned that the Kuntzes, Cory and Julie, had left 15 minutes before the slide to attend their son’s baseball game in Tacoma. The Kuntzes learned that Lincoln had helped save their uncle.
Lincoln can’t shake the what-ifs, wondering about the misfortune of drivers who happened to be passing through and about the neighbors he’ll never get to know.
“I have been waking up in the middle of the night,” he says. “I know life goes on, but I just keep playing it over and over and over.”
Lindsey Wasson / The Seattle Times