Saturday, December 16, 2017

Officials say up 90 may be missing in Washington mudslide

SEATTLE — Emergency managers now believe up to 90 people may be missing in the mudslide that destroyed a community near Oso, Wash., last Saturday.

The number had been pared down — there were 176 reports of missing people earlier — by weeding out those who had been reported twice, said John Pennington, head of Snohomish County's Department of Emergency Management.

However, Pennington said another 35 people may be missing.

He said the number of dead had not changed: The official number remains 16, with another eight that have been found but not recovered. Pennington said the unrecovered victims cannot be verified until done so by the county's medical examiner, a process that isn't done in the field.

Those bodies are expected to be retrieved and will be added to the official count today, he said.

Wednesday, some 200 emergency responders, volunteers who live in the area, heavy-equipment operators and at least three dogs went through the gray debris on the west side of the slide area. Additional teams from Darrington were searching the east side, where a small pond was blocking their path.

Rescue personnel told reporters additional bodies had been found.

"There are finds going on continually. They are finding people now," said Steve Mason, a fire battalion chief from South Snohomish County, who is leading the westside operation.

Visibility was tough because wreckage is covered in gray muck. Backhoes scooped only partial loads, which were sometimes spread on the ground. Searchers then examined the muck for clues that could reveal whether a victim may be buried nearby.

"People are under logs, mixed in. It's a slow process," Mason said. Just then, a chain saw toppled a tree, clearing an additional area to search.

The disaster scene, a 25-mile drive east of Arlington, has been compared to the damage left behind by the eruption of Mount St. Helens. In a topographical sense, that's true — all about are big mounds of fine gray sediment, as high as 15 feet, that are shaped like the "hummocks" that the 1980 eruption left in the Toutle River valley.

Teams have scraped clear the westernmost 200 yards of Highway 530, where heavy machines have a stable footing to pivot and lift away logs and fragments of houses.

Many searchers wore hard hats and raincoats. Approved volunteers from the area walked in with new hand shovels.

Among the rescue trucks were several ambulances, not for victims, but to aid any personnel injured in the mess.

Blackhawk helicopters from the National Guard flew overhead to remove bodies. Guardsmen in red hard hats were shuttled to the scene in a pickup to add manpower.

A half-inch black cable was strung through the brambles on the hillside above the highway to restore phone and Internet service to Darrington to the east.

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