Number of missing in Washington mudslide plummets

DARRINGTON, Wash. -- The number of missing in the Washington state mudslide fell to 30 on Saturday after many people were found safe, authorities said.

A drop from the original 90 was expected as people notified authorities that they were well, a spokesman, Jason Biermann, said.

He also said that the number of confirmed dead rose to 18 and that rescuers had found another victim in the rain-soaked debris field. Earlier authorities said that they had discovered at least 25 bodies.

Meanwhile crews halted their work in the mass of smashed homes, tree limbs and quicksand-like mud Saturday for a moment of silence to honor those lost.

Gov. Jay Inslee had asked people across Washington state to pause at 10:37 a.m., the time the huge slide that destroyed a neighborhood in Oso, north of Seattle, struck on March 22.

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Searchers pause for a moment of silence at the scene of a deadly mudslide Saturday, March 29, 2014, in Oso, Wash. More than two dozen bodies have been found and many more people could be buried in the debris.
Elaine Thompson, AP

"People all over stopped work -all searchers - in honor of that moment, so people we are searching for know we are serious," Snohomish County Fire District 1 battalion chief Steve Mason said.

An American flag had been run up a tree and then down to half-staff at the debris site, he said.

Nowhere did the moment of silence mean more than in Darrington, the nearest town to Oso, 55 northeast of Seattle.

"The reminder is always there," Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin said. "And that scar on the mountain will never heal. Nor will the scar in our hearts ever heal."

Finding and identifying victims of the mudslide could stretch on for a long time.

"It's a very, very slow process. It was miserable to begin with, and as you all know, it has rained heavily in the last few days, it's made the quicksand even worse," Snohomish County Executive Director Gary Haakenson said at a Friday evening briefing. "I cannot possibly tell you how long this will last, or when, or if they will find more bodies. We hope that we do, but right now there's no telling."

Hope for the missing began fading by midweek when they had not checked in with friends or relatives, and no one had emerged from the pile alive.

Leslie Zylstra said everybody in town knows someone who died, and the village was coming to grips with the fact that many of the missing may remain entombed in the debris.

"The people know there's no way anybody could have survived," said Zylstra, who used to work in an Arlington hardware store. "They just want to have their loved ones, to bury their loved ones."

Haakenson described for the first time the difficulty of the searchers' task. When a body is found, the spot is marked for a helicopter pickup. That only happens when the helicopters are able to fly in the wind and rain that has pummeled the search area. The victim is then placed in a truck in a holding area.

At the end of the day, all the recovered victims are transported to the medical examiner's office about 20 miles away in Everett.

"Autopsies are performed, the process of identification takes place - if possible," Haakenson said. "The identification process has been very, very challenging."

Authorities have had to rely heavily on dental records, Haakenson told The Seattle Times. In a few cases, medical examiner's investigators have had to use DNA testing.

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A customer rests her hands on a tee-shirt for sale at a sporting goods store with proceeds to be directed to victims of a deadly landslide in Arlington, Wash.
Elaine Thompson, AP

For searchers steady rain is an added challenge. National Guard units are working in water up to their waists. At the end of the day searchers must be decontaminated because toxic chemicals are part of the mix along with uprooted trees and wrecked houses.

In addition to bearing the stress of the disaster, townspeople were increasingly frustrated by the lack of information from authorities, said Mary Schoenfeldt, a disaster traumatologist who has been providing counseling services at schools and for public employees and volunteers.

"The anger and frustration is starting to rise," she said.

That's normal for this phase of a disaster, as is the physical toll taken by not having eaten or slept normally in days, she said.

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The massive mudslide is shown in this aerial photo, Monday, March 24, 2014, near Arlington, Wash.
Ted S. Warren, AP

The catastrophe followed weeks of heavy rain.

Previous slides triggered by storms included one that killed 150 people in Virginia in the wake of Hurricane Camille in 1969 and another that killed 129 when rain from Tropical Storm Isabel loosened tons of mud that buried the Puerto Rican community of Mameyes in 1985.

A dam in San Francisquito Canyon, California, collapsed in 1928, causing an abutment to give way and killing 500 people, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey.







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