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Terror after landslide: 'Can you tell me what happened?'

Landslide witness: It's like a war zone

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    Landslide witness: It's like a war zone

Landslide witness: It's like a war zone 02:57

Story highlights

  • Boy, 4, makes it out of the wreckage, but most of family didn't get out
  • "My husband is a survivor," says Barbara Welsh
  • ''I can hear them tapping underneath and yelling at us," a caller tells 911
  • La Rae deQuilettes prays her husband has found an air pocket amid the debris

The rain-soaked ground in Washington's Cascade Mountains offered little warning before it gave way, dumping a wall of mud onto the towns of Oso and Darrington, an hour's drive north of Seattle.

With the official death toll at 16, eight more bodies located but not recovered, and as many as 176 other people unaccounted for in the landslide that struck Saturday, crews were digging through debris up to 20-feet deep to find survivors.

As the search goes on, stories of those who escaped and those who are searching have begun to emerge:

'I can hear them tapping underneath'

It was a 911 call at about 10:45 a.m. Saturday that alerted authorities to a problem on State Route 530, a two-lane road that connects rural mountain communities.

"It is really flooding bad," the caller said. "There's a roof of a house on the road."

Response to landslide is 'very humbling'

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    Response to landslide is 'very humbling'

Response to landslide is 'very humbling' 01:46
Rescuer: Houses exploded from the mud

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    Rescuer: Houses exploded from the mud

Rescuer: Houses exploded from the mud 03:52
911 caller: I can hear family tapping

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    911 caller: I can hear family tapping

911 caller: I can hear family tapping 00:53
Witness: We dug for families ourselves

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    Witness: We dug for families ourselves

Witness: We dug for families ourselves 03:21

Then came another call. And another.

Michael Landon told a 911 dispatcher that his neighbor's house and a house on the other side of it were gone, and he was trying to find survivors.

"I am standing in the area now, and I can hear them tapping underneath and yelling at us," he told the dispatcher. Asked how many people he could hear, Landon said two. "There should be three people in this house," he said. "We are trying to find the other."

Other callers appeared to be struggling to understand what had happened.

"Everything is gone, the houses are gone!" a woman screamed into the telephone. "What happened? Can you tell me what happened?"

The dispatcher's answer: "Landslide."

See before and after photos

'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.

Body of Navy officer found, his wife is still missing

The waiting ended Tuesday for the family of U.S. Navy Cmdr. John Regelbrugge, 49, whose body and that of his dog were found by his brothers.

His wife, Kris, was still missing.

"They were both home when the slide hit, but they haven't found her yet," said his sister-in-law, Jackie Leighton.

Regelbrugge's three sons serve in the U.S. military. Two are involved in the search, and the third was making his way home from abroad to join them.

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.