Washington officials warn to expect the worst

Last Updated Mar 28, 2014 10:00 PM EDT

The body of an additional victim was pulled from the sodden debris in Oso, Wash., Friday as workers continued searching for the approximately 90 people who remain missing after last weekend's mudslide, authorities said.

But the official death toll stayed at 17 despite warnings that it was about to rise significantly, even as authorities said they had all but abandoned hope of finding survivors.

Snohomish County Executive Director Gary Haakenson said that he believed crews were finding more bodies in the mud but that the process from extraction to identification by the medical examiner's office was very slow. As many as 10 bodies that have been found are to be added to the list of victims.

Haakenson said that officials wanted to hold out hope for survivors, but "at some point we have to expect the worst."

The 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.

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.

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

The first week of digging is coming to an end, but for searchers there is no end in sight.

"Trees, mud, dirt, residences, cars, some of them look like they've been put in a blender and dropped on the ground," Snohomish County Fire Battalion Chief Steve Mason said.

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Bing/AP

That's exactly the way it felt to 81-year-old Mac McPherson.

"You just kept mixing it and mixing it and mixing it, and when it got going fast enough, you took the top off and it all went voof," he said.

Linda McPherson, his wife of 46 years, was sitting beside him when the avalanche of mud hit. He grabbed a wooden stick to dig himself out but couldn't find her.

"It's very overwhelming, and it's almost surreal," said Sue Moore, who lives in Snohomish County. "But you see the pictures, and then it starts hitting home."

But the strength of the community is hitting home as well. Oso's determination is reflected in a new phrase: "Oso Strong."

Many of the searchers are local loggers who know the missing. As much as it is their mission to find bodies, each discovery is somber.

"It gets really quiet for a few minutes," said Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots. "You can almost hear a pin drop out there. You see seasoned veterans in this business. They start to tear up. Their eyes get glossy, and it's kind of their way of paying respects to these people's loved ones."

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

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

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.

Rain fell on the searchers, 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.

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.

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.

Five people injured by the mudslide remain in a Seattle hospital, including a 5-month-old boy. His condition was upgraded from critical to serious and he is breathing on his own, a hospital spokeswoman said.




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