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Death toll rises in Washington mudslide

Posted at 6:37 AM, Mar 28, 2014
and last updated 2014-03-28 06:37:20-04

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 17 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 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:

One last house call

Stephen Neal was out on a job Saturday morning, replacing a water heater at a house.

Then, in a flash, he was gone.

But not from his loved one's hearts. His wife, Brenda, camped out at a firehouse in Darrington late into the next night. She hoped and prayed that a firefighter would say her husband, a plumber, was alive and well. She couldn't really imagine life without him.

"None of us feel like he's gone," Brenda Neal said.

Her daughter, Sara, agreed: "I think if anyone had a chance of getting through, it would be him."

Another of his daughters, Caroline, told CNN affiliate KING that "my dad is a quick thinker, and he is someone who takes action in an emergency."

"If he had any warning at all, we just have to think he is somewhere, and he is safe, and they just can't reach him right now."

Rescuers did end up reaching him -- just not soon enough. As with many others, the mudslide proved too fast, too powerful, too much even for Stephen Neal.

The Snohomish County Medical Examiner's Office identified him as one of the disaster's victims on Thursday, saying he had died of "blunt impact."

A family's tragic find

Navy Cmdr. John Regelbrugge III, 49, and his wife, Kris, 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, his 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.

They were sitting right next to each other

Mac McPherson and his wife of 45 years, Linda, were sitting beside each other in the living room reading the paper when the house was hit and moved more than 100 yards.

He lived; she did not.

Their Darrington farm was torn apart, CNN affiliate KOM0-TV reported, and the McPhersons were trapped among beams and trees and pipes and mud.

He told KOMO he used a military technique to escape the mud, first taking six deep breaths to relax. He used broken wood from his mission-style chair to dig until he saw a little bit of light that he thrust the stick through to signal rescuers.

"I kept yelling at Linda to dig," he told KOMO. She never answered.

He also lost one of his two dogs.

Rescuers dug out the 78-year-old man, who had nasty cuts all over his face and some compression injuries.

He said he'll never again live at the base of a mountain.

"Especially not that mountain," he said.

His late wife's older sister, Irene Kuntz, fought back tears as she recalled "playing with her when she was a baby, like a doll," up through Linda McPherson's horrific final moments.

"Oh my gosh, she was such a great sister," Kuntz said. "She was always there if you needed anything. She was so non-judgmental."

If there's a silver lining, it's that Kuntz's niece and nephew, who lived next door to the McPhersons, weren't home when the mudslide ripped through.

But their dog, a chocolate Labrador named Buddy, was.

Somehow, though, he was rescued amid the rubble a day and a half later.

"He was saved because he's going to help us get through this," Kuntz said of Buddy. "Seeing that dog, it's like life still is good."

'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 his sister's 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.

On Thursday, searchers identified the body of family member Kaylee B. Spillers, just five years old.

The 2nd victim has been identified by the medical examiner's office as 66 year old William E. Welsh of Arlington, Washington. The cause of his death was blunt impact and the manner was an accident.

'I really feel that they're gone'

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-TV.

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 was 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.

Hope ends in grief for Vietnam vet's family

Barbara Welsh last saw her husband, Bill, early Saturday as he was leaving to help someone in Oso install a water tank. The veteran to whom she has been married to for 43 years made it out of Vietnam alive -- she believed he would make it through this tragedy.

Medical examiners identified Welsh's body among the dead who have been recovered.

Welsh's firefighter son, Wayne, has been helping in the search for survivors and victims.

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 Greg Botelho, Gary Tuchman, George Howell, Bill Weir, Tom Watkins, Janet DiGiacomo and Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to this report.

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