The number of people believed missing in last weekend’s deadly mudslide in Oso, Wash., has dropped dramatically, from 90 to 30.
Jason Biermann, program manager for the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management, said the number could drop even lower in the coming days as investigators continue to verify the exact total of people who were in the mudslide’s path.
A few days ago, officials feared the number of missing could be as high as 176.
Biermann also announced that the number of confirmed dead increased by one to 18. He indicated an additional body was found Saturday, but is not yet included in the official number.
Biermann also revealed for the first time that in some cases only partial remains are being recovered, a stark indication of the force of the March 22 mudslide that buried a community along the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River. The condition of some of the bodies has added to the difficulty of making identifications, he said.
“The slide hit with such force that often the rescuers are not recovering full, intact victims,” Biermann said.
Along with the confirmed victims, there are additional remains that have not been identified and are not considered part of the official total. That number could be as high as 10.
A death is considered confirmed only after a victim has been identified by the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office, the family notified by a chaplain and the body released to a mortuary.
The dramatically reduced number of missing brought some relief in a week of grim updates from emergency-management officials, who at times struggled to provide consistent figures of the toll.
Pastor Michael De Luca of the First Baptist Church in Darrington, Wash., said he was not surprised to hear the lowered figure.
“I suspected all along that 90 was too many,” he said.
He said firefighters and rescuers initially wanted to know about every person who might have been in the area of the mudslide, but many of the names submitted at the beginning have since been accounted for or crossed off the list.
“We found one guy living right next to the post office,” De Luca said. “He was quite surprised to find he’d been listed as missing or dead.”
The difficult work of sifting through the mud by machine, shovel and hand came to a brief halt at precisely 10:37 a.m. to honor the mudslide’s victims. Gov. Jay Inslee had urged people across the state to pause in a moment of silence at the exact time the mudslide hit on March 22 to pay tribute to the dead.
“One week ago today our city changed forever,” Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin told reporters shortly before the observance in his town.
At the Oso Fire Station, not far from the devastated community, firefighters, volunteers and community members doffed their baseball caps and bowed their heads as traffic was stopped on Highway 530.
After about a minute, the caps went back on, the traffic was waved through and the station again became a hive of activity.
“We’ve got to get back to normal,” said Tara Wallen, 38, a bar manager who stopped by to drop off $2,086 in cash and checks contributed by members of a Stanwood Eagles club. “Yes, it’s going to be painful and it will take time, but we’ve got to get people back in homes.”
Biermann, the county emergency-management official, said the search for victims Saturday was slowed by a steady rainfall that added to the muddy misery of the small army of people combing the slide area.
Master Sgt. Thomas Siegel, who serves in a Washington Air National Guard unit based out of Spokane that specializes in search-and-rescue missions, led a recovery team working with crowbars, shovels, probes and tools. Whenever they find human remains, they stop, mark the spot and call for assistance
“It plays out day-to-day, hour-by-hour. There is no real hard count on it. If we locate (remains), the specialists move in, and we move on,” said Siegel, whose civil-engineering squadron is attached to the 141st Air Refueling Squadron.
Siegel said his team works off grid coordinates, and sometimes members get down on their knees to redistribute their weight on boggy areas. When human remains are found, the locations are marked with GPS, and the remains are eventually removed using helicopters.
“In a nutshell, it’s a giant pile of goo,” Siegel said of the slide area. “You just keep working your way slowly through it and keep going forward.”
Siegel said the teams work closely with civilian volunteers on scene. “The community folks, they keep us moving. They are our motivation.”
Volunteers include 18-year-old Forrest Thompson, a young logger who started working in the rescue effort a week ago. He grew up in Darrington and knows many of the missing. He helped convince emergency-response officials that local volunteers should be a part of the response.
“We pretty much just buck the root wads and trees off the top,” Thompson said Saturday. “If we do find somebody underneath a pile of logs, we just buck everything out of the way, and dig it out by hand rather than by machine.”
Also at the scene are two teams of materials specialists who are working to find and contain contaminants at the mudslide site to protect searchers. Dick Walker, senior spill responder with the state Department of Ecology’s spill-response program, said the entire mudslide site is believed to be contaminated with household chemicals, diesel and propane from heating tanks, mineral oil from transformers, and flammable gas tanks.
Most of the material found so far has been crushed from the force of the slide, he said, but searchers are also looking in pockets and voids.
“We don’t want people reaching into spaces where they may get a chemical burn,” Walker said.
Susan Kelleher can be reached at email@example.com.