Washington landslide: Families pray for miracles as death toll grows
By Chelsea J. Carter, Ana Cabrera and Ben Brumfield
Editor’s note: The following was compiled from CNN interviews and reports published by The Daily Herald of Everett, Washington, KIRO-TV and The Seattle Times.
DARRINGTON, Washington (CNN) — With each passing day, the toll grows from a mountain that moved, a massive landslide that swallowed houses and trailers in Washington’s Cascade Mountains.
At least 16 bodies have been recovered, another eight bodies have been located but not recovered. That toll is only expected to grow as searchers dig through a mountain of mud and debris to try to find the people who called the towns of Oso and Darrington home.
Some were from the area, and others were drawn by the remote beauty of the rugged Cascade Mountains.
They were neighbors and, in some cases, friends.
Among them was a Navy commander with a love of the mountains and a retired couple living out their twilight years by spending time with their children and grandchildren. Then there was a 20-something and the man she loved, who were planning a wedding at the woman’s family home.
Here are a few of their stories:
A family’s tragic find
Navy Cmdr. John Regelbrugge III, 49, and his wife, Lisa, had slept in on Saturday morning, a rarity for a couple who by all accounts had a passion for the outdoors and motorcycles.
It was that passion that drew the couple to Darrington, where he commuted to his job at an area naval base.
The family wonders if the couple ever knew what hit them.
The message from one of John’s brothers to his father: “There’s a mudslide. Their house is gone.”
Regelbrugge’s two brothers and two of his sons scoured the debris field looking for a sign of the 32-year Navy veteran.
They found his Navy uniforms and his officer’s sword across the river from where the two-story house once stood, the father, John Regelbrugge II, said.
Later, he got the word. His son was dead.
Regelbrugge’s brothers and his two sons had found his body, the family said. Next to Regelbrugge was the body of his dog, his sister-in-law Jackie Leighton said.
He appeared to have his arms up, perhaps trying to protect himself, his father said.
There was word Wednesday that the family also found Regelbrugge’s wife.
‘Hold her one last time’
The last time anyone heard from 36-year-old Summer Raffo was as she left her home for work east of Arlington.
She was driving on Washington State Highway 530, somewhere between Oso and Darrington, when the landslide struck.
Her brother, Dayn Brunner, and a cousin had been searching for her ever since. At one point, authorities threatened to arrest Brunner and others who ignored warnings against wading into the mud and debris to search for her.
Brunner was nearby when search and rescue workers found her car and then her body, her mother Rae Smith said.
Raffo’s brother identified her body, she said.
Smith was making her way Wednesday night to Arlington, a short distance from Darrington, to see her daughter’s body. “So I can hold her one last time,” she said.
‘My house is matchsticks’
Robin Youngblood was sitting with a friend in her living room when she heard a huge roar. Out the window, she saw a wall of mud racing toward her.
“I said, ‘Oh my God,’ and then it hit us,'” Youngblood told CNN’s AC360 on Wednesday.
The mud rushed in so fast that it ripped the roof off and pushed the house a quarter of a mile.
“My house is matchsticks,” she said. “There’s nothing left.”
Youngblood says she and her friend survived by pulling mud out of their noses and mouths so they could breathe.
Now, she’s left wondering why no one ever warned her the home she bought years ago was in a geologically unstable area.
“Nobody told any of us,” she said. “This is criminal, as far as I’m concerned.”
After a rescuer pulled her to safety, Youngblood came across a 4-year-old boy named Jacob. She wrapped him in a blanket, sang him songs and tried to help him stay calm.
“Honey, I’m a grandma,” she told him. “I’ll take care of you until we figure this out.”
‘Nobody else was able to get out’
Four-year-old Jacob Spillers was in an upstairs room in his Oso house when the mudslide turned it into wreckage. He got out.
His mother was at work when the wall of earth shifted. The mountain of debris it left behind blocked her from reaching her family.
Jacob’s father and three half-siblings apparently had not made it out of the house.
“Jacob told me he got out when nobody else was able to get out,” said Jose Mangual, father of one of the children who hadn’t escaped.
Family was planning to turn property into cemetery
Nichole Rivera last heard from her daughter, Delaney Webb, on Saturday morning through a Facebook posting.
Her daughter and her daughter’s fiance were staying at the home of Rivera’s parents. The couple had planned to wed there in August.
When she couldn’t reach them by telephone, Rivera flew from her home in suburban Houston to Washington state to find answers.
But proximity didn’t help.
As the hours ticked by, Rivera said she had little reason to believe they were still alive. “If you’ve seen the maps, and you’ve seen the extent of the devastation, and the consistency of the mud, I can tell you with great soundness they’re not going to find my parents, or daughter, or her fiance,” she told CNN. “I really feel that they’re gone.”
Rivera’s aunt, Debbie Satterlee, was still coming to terms with the possibility that her brother, sister-in-law and niece might never be found amid the mud and wreckage — all that was left of the property where Rivera’s parents had once planned to put a family cemetery plot.
“It would be great to have a body,” Rivera said “But if we can’t we can’t, they’re in the right spot.”
Mother of four praying husband found air pocket
At first, La Rae deQuilettes didn’t worry when her husband, an electrician, didn’t return home Saturday.
Ron was just working late, she told herself.
He had sent his wife of 31 years a text message that morning, saying he had arrived at the job.
But by early Sunday, when he still hadn’t returned to their home in suburban Seattle, she realized her husband had been working where the landslide had struck.
“It’s a living nightmare,” she said.
She was trying to keep it together for their four children, praying that her husband had found an air pocket or was somewhere waiting for rescuers.
“He’s a fighter,” she said. “He’s tall and strong. He has a heart in him like there’s no tomorrow.”
Police, she said, had told her that the couple who hired her husband were also among the missing.
‘A beautiful person inside and out’
Christina Jefferds was babysitting her 4-month-old granddaughter, Sanoah, when the landslide hit, according to CNN affiliate KING.
Her employer confirmed Jefferds’ death on a company blog.
“Chris was a beautiful person inside and out,” wrote Kelly Peterson at Northwest Smile Design, where Jefferds worked as an office manager.
“She was so humble, yet so generous in volunteering the time, talents, and resources with which she had been blessed while never drawing attention to herself. For me personally, she was a counselor and a confidante, a steadying and calming force in times of stress, a source of inspiration and beauty, a true friend. With steadfast faith I eagerly look forward to a joyful reunion with my dear friend.”
KING reports the search for Jefferds’ granddaughter continues.
Vietnam vet’s son holds out hope
Barbara Welsh last saw her husband, Bill, early Saturday as he was leaving to help someone in Oso install a water tank.
“My husband is a survivor, and I believe in him,” Welsh said of the Vietnam veteran to whom she has been married for 43 years. “And that’s all you can do — is keep believing.”
Welsh’s firefighter son, Wayne, was basing his hopes that his father had survived on what he has learned on the job. “It’s the knowledge you get from the structure,” he said. “People can last a long time out there.”
He was touched by the number of people helping in the search. “I’ve just been down here at the fire station and seen all the volunteers come out of the woodwork,” he said.
It has given his family hope, he said. They need that right now.
CNN’s Ana Cabrera reported from Darrington. Chelsea J. Carter and Ben Brumfield reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s George Howell, Bill Weir, Tom Watkins, Janet DiGiacomo and Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to this report.
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