updated 03/26/2014 AT 2:00 PM ET
•originally published 03/28/2014 AT 12:45 PM ET
Almost completely encased in mud, Gary “Mac” McPherson could only move his right arm.
The 81-year-old and his wife, Linda, 69, had been reading the morning paper in matching reclining chairs in their living room when a landslide slammed into their Oso, Wash., home Saturday, pushing their house 150 yards and filling it with thick mud and debris.
“He doesn’t remember the impact of the mud,” his daughter Kate McPherson tells the Los Angeles Times. “He doesn’t remember the house going across the pasture He took six breaths and calmed himself down. He thought, and he started digging.”
A ceiling beam lay across his lap, but the chair that McPherson had been sitting in had saved him from being crushed. He found a stick and started digging a hole through the mud.
“The whole time he was calling for my mom, who was right next to him, but she never responded,” Kate, 38, says.
A neighbor, Elaine Young, was surveying the devastation with her husband, Don, when she heard a tapping noise and realized it was coming from McPherson’s flattened house, according to The Associated Press.
As the Youngs pulled him out, McPherson begged them to leave him and find his wife. But Linda, whose body was the first recovered, had not survived. Emergency workers have found 15 more since then, but 176 people remain unaccounted for.
More than 200 workers combed through the mud and rubble in the rain on Tuesday, but hopes are fading of finding survivors, The New York Times reports.
“It feels like you are in not a junkyard, but a landfill,” said Julie Petersen, whose sister Christina Jefferds was killed. “You’ve got sewer pipes. You’ve got dirty diapers. You’re basically in a landfill.”
She is still looking for Jefferds’s 4-month-old granddaughter, Sanoah Huestis. So far, they have found what appears to be the baby’s bed and her blanket, but no body.