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Landslide toll rises to 27 as searchers battle muck, standing water

wenty-two people still are missing, authorities said

City News Service | 4/1/2014, 4:35 p.m.
Among the mounds of mud and ripped-down trees, you see an occasional appliance, a tire here and there, the twisted ...

Among the mounds of mud and ripped-down trees, you see an occasional appliance, a tire here and there, the twisted cables that used to be part of the telephone system. What you don't see are homes.

They are gone. And it is difficult to even figure out where they once stood and what became of them.

The sheer force of a landslide on March 22 pulverized this neighborhood in rural Washington, leaving behind a graveyard in the debris where 27 bodies have been recovered and where crews painstakingly search for 22 people who are listed as missing.

On that awful Saturday, a rain-saturated hillside along the north fork of the Stillaguamish River gave way, sending a square-mile rush of wet earth and rock into the outskirts of the town of Oso in Washington's North Cascade Mountains.

Since then, rescuers have trudged through the muck -- 70 feet thick in some places -- looking for bodies, though some cling to hope someone might be found alive even 10 days later.

The death toll in the massive landslide rose to 27, up three from the last count, the Snohomish County Medical Examiner's Office said Tuesday.

That aligns with information authorities released a day earlier, when three bodies were discovered in the 640-acre debris field left after the landslide. Authorities have not been immediately adding newly discovered bodies to the official toll, instead waiting until they are identified and their families notified.

Twenty-two people remain missing, down from 30 on Monday, authorities said.

Authorities so far have released the names of 19 victims, ranging in age from 4 months to 71 years.

The 19th name, Brandy L. Ward, was released Tuesday. Ward, 58, of Arlington, died of multiple blunt force injuries, the medical examiner's office said.

Tough, nasty, dangerous conditions

About 600 people, including more than 100 volunteers, and cadaver dogs are involved in the search, officials have said.

The debris field is full of toxic sludge -- a combination of human waste, toxic chemicals from households, propane tanks, oil and gas that make the search extremely dangerous, according to Lt. Richard Burke of the Bellevue Fire Department, who is the spokesman for efforts on the western side of the mile-wide slide.

Every person, animal and thing that comes out of the field has to be decontaminated.

Some of the workers have come down with dysentery, while supervisors are concerned that others may be at risk for tetanus.

Some of the areas in the search zone are too unstable for crews to work there. It would be like working in quicksand, Burke said.

It smells of sewage, but more than a week after the slide, it's not a strong odor, and the dogs, who can detect humans 10 feet under the surface, are undeterred.

Two of the nine dogs involved in Monday's search were suffering the effects of hypothermia, the coordinators of the landslide recovery teams said in a statement on the Snohomish County website.

Some of the volunteers are aiding in the recovery of family mementos from the debris.

The sounds of chainsaws fill the air, as do the rumbling motors of the excavating equipment, which grabs large objects like trees and moves them to the side. Then other people move in for a hand search or a visual inspection of a plot. Orange ribbons mark the grid, indicating areas that have been checked, while some indicate a find of interest.

Boards are placed over the thick slop, making a wooden path for workers to walk.

One of the biggest challenges has been standing water, but warmer temperatures and a lack of rain have helped workers, who are running pumps all day long to drain areas of the debris field.

Areas that were submerged 24 hours prior were able to be searched on Tuesday.

Two U.S. flags fly among the men and women working in the field. One, recovered from the debris, hangs in remembrance of lives lost. The other is at half-staff on the lone tree left standing in this part of the slide zone.