LOGAN — Search crews say the effort to find a mother and her two children believed to be buried in a powerful mudslide that ripped their home off its foundation, was declared a recovery operation late Saturday night.
"There's not any reasonable chance of anyone surviving in what's left there," Logan Fire Chief Mark Meaker said. "We don't believe there's savable lives."
Asked whether there was any chance the victims were not in the house but rather had gone somewhere and not notified anyone, Meaker said he was 99 percent sure the trio was inside when the mudslide hit. As much as he said he would like to believe the family will show up somewhere else, "It's just not going to happen. We really don't believe it is," he said.
Because the hill where the slide occurred was still extremely unstable, the effort to recover the victim's bodies was not expected to resume for three or four days.
"Everything that could be done, was done," Meaker said.
Family members of the victims, who had been waiting nearby all day for news of their loved ones, were given the news just prior to a late night news conference.
Before the search was called off, Julio Jacome watched and worried: His relatives had been renters in the house for the past month.
Jacome's son lives in the home, but was out of town when the flood occurred. The son's sister-in-law, who was only identified by her first name, Jackie, 39, had moved into the home a month ago with her two children, a son, 13, and a daughter, 12.
"There's a lot of emotion inside me," Jacome said, using Nurian Cuellar as a translator. He is originally from El Salvador, but has lived in Cache Valley 20 years. "We just pray and ask God to help them."
The names of the victims were not released Saturday night.
Meaker said more than 100 search and rescue personnel, including the Unified Fire Authority's highly experienced Urban Search and Rescue team worked tirelessly throughout the day. Ordering the searchers to stop was not an easy decision.
"We had to drag them away to make them stop. They didn't want to stop searching," said Logan Police Chief Russ Roper.
A third of the damaged house was covered by debris. Crews methodically went through that portion throughout the day and into Saturday night, removing the debris by hand. They also used cameras and listening devices, and dug small holes to drop those instruments into the ground to look for survivors.
Once that section was cleared, the search was called off. The final two-thirds of the house was buried in mud.
The force of the slide was so great that it knocked out a 10-inch concrete wall with rebar, as well as knocking the house 20 feet off its foundation before pushing it another 6 feet in another direction, Meaker said. A house built to withstand a hurricane wouldn't have survived the powerful impact of the slide, he said.
"The forces of nature were too great," Meaker said.
Because of that, it was determined the three people in the house did not survive.
Investigators believe the family was still in the house because just prior to the slide, their landlord was advising them to evacuate because the canal above them had been breached.
The mother and children were reportedly grabbing just a couple of items and were about to leave, when the wall of mud and debris crashed into their house without warning.
Their cars were still parked in the garage, Meaker said. Investigators have also not been able to track the woman's cell phone, meaning it's either been disabled or it's buried deep in the mud.
The landslide occurred about noon near 915 Canyon Road, said Logan Fire Marshal Liz Hunsaker. It ripped through one home, and four others are still at risk, Hunsaker said.
Fifteen homes have been evacuated, and several others have been damaged by water and mud, she said. By Saturday night, 11 buildings remained evacuated. Meaker said those families may be forced out of their homes for several more days.
Roper said all available resources had been deployed to the scene. The search was suspended just before midnight Saturday.
Fire officials said Saturday night the hillside where the mudslide originated was "still unstable at this point," which is why search crews were forced to dig through the mud by hand. Rescuers were working in teams of 30, switching with each other when one team got tired.
The U.S. Geological Service is calling the scene near the slide moderately safe, but surveyors are evaluating the nearby land to ensure the freeway above the canal and surrounding homes are structurally sound, Roper said.
Adam Elsmore, who lives in the slide area, was just arriving home when the slide began.
"It was the noise that got my attention," Elsmore said. "I went into the home and I could hear something like trees being pushed over and went to the rear of the house, and when I looked out, the hill immediately to the left was sliding down."
Elsmore and his girlfriend ran outside and saw the house immediately north of his flattened to the ground. They went to look for people, but the strong odor of natural gas and downed power lines encouraged the pair to find a safe place to notify the authorities.
"It happened really quickly," Elsmore said. "Once the earth gave way, it was all tumbling down the hill, trees and rocks. It was a pretty good shake."
Elsmore, who moved into the home nearly a year ago, said there was a natural stream that ran between his home and the one that collapsed.
"It was always running, year-round," Elsmore said. "This year it was just bigger, double if not triple the size, compared to last year. For the past week there has been standing water on the road that couldn't go down the storm drains."
Sean Bartschi, Elsmore's roommate, was at a ranch near Bear Lake when the slide occurred. Bartschi said he got a call from Elsmore telling him that he heard a "loud crack" that was followed by flooding of their home.
"We haven't been able to get into our house yet," Bartschi said. "From what we've been able to see, the basement stairs are level with the ground."
Emergency crews have closed off four blocks surrounding the landslide. Gas leaks caused by the slide were quickly contained, Hunsaker said. About 600 homes in the area were temporarily without power, though it has been restored for all but the area of the landslide.
Several neighbors said they noticed cracks in the canal earlier in the week and that water had been leaking onto Canyon Road. Some said they had complained to Logan's public works department about the problem.
Mark Nielsen, director of public works for Logan, said landslides have been common in the area for the past 150 years, yet crews work to keep the canal system in the best condition possible.14 comments on this story
The public works department was working with residents in The Island to get homes and streets cleaned the best they could, Nielsen said.
Hunsaker said four fire engines from the Logan City Fire Department responded to the initial call. As the situation worsened, Cache County Technical Response Teams and Hazmat were called in addition to a Technical Rescue Team from Weber County.
Urban Search and Rescue teams training in Logan with FEMA Friday were also on scene providing assistance and advice to working crews.
Contributing: Pat Reavy