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Search for mudslide missing comes down to shovels

Published: Friday, March 28 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Workers use heavy equipment to clear trees and other debris, Thursday, March 27, 2014, as the search continued for victims of the massive mudslide that struck Saturday near Darrington, Wash.  (Ted S. Warren, Pool, Associated Press) Workers use heavy equipment to clear trees and other debris, Thursday, March 27, 2014, as the search continued for victims of the massive mudslide that struck Saturday near Darrington, Wash. (Ted S. Warren, Pool, Associated Press)

DARRINGTON, Wash. — There is only one way searchers are narrowing the list of 90 people still missing seven days after a landslide obliterated the mountain community of Oso: by digging.

There are no more phone calls being made out of the Snohomish County Emergency Operations Center to determine whether some on the list were away and just haven't checked in since Saturday morning's slide. No house checks in nearby neighborhoods to see if someone might have been missed.

Authorities said Friday morning the death toll remained at 17, with additional bodies located but not counted, after preparing the public for a significant spike in reported fatalities.

Snohomish County District 21 Fire Chief Travis Hots said confirmation first must come from the medical examiner's office, which is going through the slow process of identifying the bodies, and new information will be released Friday evening.

Gary Ray, pastor of the Oso Community Chapel, helps to load in a truck-full of chocolate bars as a donation for victims to serve as Gary Ray, pastor of the Oso Community Chapel, helps to load in a truck-full of chocolate bars as a donation for victims to serve as "comfort food" Thursday, March 27, 2014, near Oso within Snohomish County, Wash. At least 25 people are known to have died when a colossal mudslide occurred on Saturday, unleashing a wall of earth that destroyed dozens of homes near the rural town of Oso, Wash., 55 miles northeast of Seattle. (seattlepi.com, Jordan Stead, Associated Press)

"We understand there has been confusion over the reported number of fatalities," Hots said Thursday night in a statement. "This has been a challenging process for all of us."

He continued to insist the searchers might still find survivors, though that belief appeared to be waning.

"I want to brace everybody that the chance is very slim," Hots said. "But we haven't given up."

The possibility that dozens more people could be buried in the debris pile besides the 26 bodies already found has the potential to place Oso, with a total population of about 180, among the worst tragedies in Washington state history.

The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens killed 57 people, and a 1910 avalanche near Stevens Pass swept away two trains and killed 96.

Standing trees line the top edge of a massive mudslide Thursday, March 27, 2014, that struck Saturday near Darrington, Wash.  (Ted S. Warren, Pool, Associated Press) Standing trees line the top edge of a massive mudslide Thursday, March 27, 2014, that struck Saturday near Darrington, Wash. (Ted S. Warren, Pool, Associated Press)

"We do know this could end up being the largest mass loss of Washingtonians," Gov. Jay Inslee said Thursday. "We're looking for miracles to occur."

Besides the 90 missing, authorities are checking into 35 other people who may or may not have been in the area at the time of the slide. A group of people with the county emergency operations center is now making calls to eliminate that more-speculative list, said Marybeth O'Leary, a spokeswoman for the emergency operations center.

"They are names that are not complete names," she said. "They're things like, 'I work with a guy named Bill. He didn't show up to work today.'"

The governor has asked for more federal assistance, saying $4.5 million was expected to be spent on the response to the mudslide. Inslee's request was to expand Monday's federal emergency declaration that provided response teams and equipment.

A Jeep drives past a sign that notes the Darrington High School Loggers and the encouraging phrase A Jeep drives past a sign that notes the Darrington High School Loggers and the encouraging phrase "Git 'er done," Thursday, March 27, 2014, in Darrington, Wash. While nothing like last weekend's devastating mudslide had ever happened around town before, residents have long recognized the danger of the earth collapsing and how easily the streams can flood when it rains. And yet many who came to work in the timber and mining industries have stayed for the beauty and the sense of community. (Ted S. Warren, Associated Press)

Rain fell on the searchers Thursday, but the water levels on the eastern side of the slide area receded and uncovered flattened homes and crushed cars that previously had been inaccessible. An inch more was in the forecast for Friday.

Boats searched the area with dogs and crews inserted underwater cameras into vehicles to see if anybody was inside. Excavators pulled one car out of the muck, but it was unclear if they had discovered anybody inside.

The searchers walked on plywood pathways to keep from sinking into the sucking slurry. The moisture made the already treacherous surface even more unstable for workers exhausted after days of searching.

"If you could imagine houses, trees and a bunch of mud put in a blender, run for a bit and dumped back on the ground, that's what it looks like," said Washington National Guard Master Sgt. Chris Martin.

Standing trees and downed trees line the side edge of a massive mudslide Thursday, March 27, 2014, that struck Saturday near Darrington, Wash.  (Ted S. Warren, Pool, Associated Press) Standing trees and downed trees line the side edge of a massive mudslide Thursday, March 27, 2014, that struck Saturday near Darrington, Wash. (Ted S. Warren, Pool, Associated Press)

It's not only the people who are showing signs of strain.

The dogs leading searchers to possible human remains can sense stress, incident spokesman Bob Calkins said. They also can become bored by the repetition, and their handlers must take them away from the work area for a time, he said

"The real key is for the handlers to stay positive, because stress on the part of the handlers goes right down the leash to the dogs," Calkins said.

The county medical examiner's office has so far formally identified five victims: Christina Jefferds, 45, of Arlington; Stephen A. Neal, 55, of Darrington; Linda L. McPherson, 69, of Arlington; Kaylee B. Spillers, 5, of Arlington and William E. Welsh, 66, of Arlington.

The body of Jefferds' granddaughter, 4-month-old Sanoah Huestis, was found Thursday, said Dale Petersen, the girl's great-uncle.

A search and rescue worker carrying a probe wades through water covering Washington Highway 530 Thursday, March 27, 2014, on the eastern edge of the massive mudslide that struck Saturday near Darrington, Wash.  (Ted S. Warren, Pool, Associated Press) A search and rescue worker carrying a probe wades through water covering Washington Highway 530 Thursday, March 27, 2014, on the eastern edge of the massive mudslide that struck Saturday near Darrington, Wash. (Ted S. Warren, Pool, Associated Press)

Petersen said he arrived on the scene to help look for survivors to find that work had stopped. A firefighter informed him and others that the infant had been found, Petersen said.

He said the news provides closure for the family.

"We spent a lot of time together," he said of the baby girl.

Five people injured by the mudslide remain in a Seattle hospital, including a 5-month-old boy in critical condition.

La Corte reported from Olympia, Wash. Associated Press writers Matt Volz, Phuong Le, Jonathan J. Cooper and Doug Esser in Seattle contributed to this report.

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