Weary mudslide rescuers battle rain, exhaustion

2014-03-28 22:40
Search and rescue workers wade through water covering Washington Highway 530 on the eastern edge of the massive mudslide near Darrington, Washington state. (Ted S Warren, AP,Pool)

Search and rescue workers wade through water covering Washington Highway 530 on the eastern edge of the massive mudslide near Darrington, Washington state. (Ted S Warren, AP,Pool)

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Darrington - Weary rescuers in hip waders pressed through rain and their own exhaustion, searching for more bodies and perhaps a miracle atop the pile of filth and debris that laid waste to a Washington town and killed at least 25 people.

Rescue and cadaver dogs on Thursday occasionally led crews to a wrecked car or the ruins of a house containing a body. Teams then began removing the corpse, ignoring the muck that clogged their tools. As the victim was taken away, silence fell over the site.

The main goal now is to find more bodies and winnow the list of the 90 people who are still missing in the mudslide that buried the community of Oso on Saturday.

Authorities kept the official death toll at 16 while acknowledging at least nine additional bodies have been located, but they warned the community a higher toll would be announced Friday morning.

"I fully expect that number to go up here very, very soon," said Snohomish County District 21 Fire Chief Travis Hots.

At this point, narrowing the missing list means only one thing: digging. There are no more phone calls to relatives or door-to-door searches in hopes of locating people who just haven't checked in yet.

"At this time, we're not using any other type of methods other than the search and rescue," said Casey Broom of the Snohomish County emergency operations center.

Authorities have not released the names on the list of missing.

The more than 200 people working on the sludgy heap cling to hope that at least one survivor is waiting for them in some pocket of the pile, which is a square mile wide and 12m deep in places.

After six days of searching, people perhaps aren't the only ones showing signs of strain. Shane Barco's 3-year-old German shepherd has found bodies and body parts. But, Barco said, the dog gets frustrated when they don't bring anybody out alive.

Closure

Days of combing through what Barco called a blender of debris have exhausted the dog, leading Barco to stop the search for a while.

The medical examiner's office has so far formally identified three victims: Christina Jefferds, 45, of Arlington; Stephen A. Neal, 55, of Darrington; and Linda L. McPherson, 69, of Arlington.

Family members have confirmed a handful of other fatalities to news organizations.

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

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.

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.

Miracles

If dozens more bodies are found or left entombed in the debris, the Oso mudslide could become one of Washington state's largest disasters. The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens killed 57 people, and a 1910 avalanche near Stevens Pass that struck two trains killed 96.

"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."

Despite the new rain, water levels on the eastern side of the slide area receded, uncovering flattened homes and crushed cars that previously were inaccessible.

Boats with dogs on board searched the areas, 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 discovered anybody.

The moisture made the already treacherous surface even more unstable and raised concern about the safety of collapsed hillside above them.

A University of Washington researcher now says there were two major slides on Saturday morning.

The bigger slide that hit Oso lasted more than two minutes, and was followed four minutes later by the second one, wrote Kate Allstadt on the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network blog.

- AP
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