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Search for mudslide victims continues in Washington

by By JONATHAN J. COOPER and MATT VOLZ Associated Press on March 29, 2014 10:34 AM

ARLINGTON, Wash. — Finding and identifying victims from one of the deadliest landslides in the nation’s history could stretch on for a very long time, officials warned in describing the arduous work of extracting and trying to identify the human remains.

“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.”

[PHOTO: Washington Air National Guardsmen made their way Friday through the mud and wreckage left behind by a mudslide near Oso, Wash. (Spc. Matthew Sissel/Washington National Guard)]

Crews may be finding more remains amid the destruction in the community of Oso northeast of Seattle, but Haakenson said the official death toll will remain at 17 until medical examiners can further complete their work.

Authorities have located at least eight other bodies in addition to the 17, and they previously said they expect the number of fatalities from the March 22 mudslide to rise substantially.

Ninety people were listed as missing, but hope for them 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 Friday 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.

People who have reported relatives missing have been asked by the medical examiner’s staff to provide identifying information, such as eye color, hair color and possible tattoos, and to have the missing person’s dental office compile records, he said.

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.

There were also signs of resilience. Handmade signs have appeared that say “Oso strong” and “530 pride” in reference to the stricken community and state Highway 530 that runs through it.

Crews that had worked for days in the rain and mud were getting some relief as replacements arrived. The Colorado National Guard sent 16 members of its fatality search-and-recovery team to Washington. A new crew of volunteer diggers showed up in an Arlington school bus Friday and marched single file toward the debris pile.

Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert said the area appreciates the support during the hard, lengthy work at the debris site.

“They are searching for friends, and they are searching for families,” she said. “We ask that you continue to keep us in your hearts, this community will be healing for a very long time.”

Volz reported from Seattle; Associated Press writers Manuel Valdes in Darrington, Phuong Le and Doug Esser in Seattle, and researchers Judith Ausuebel, Jennifer Farrar and Susan James contributed to this report.

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