Rescue workers at the scene of the massive mudslide in Oso,
Washington. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson/Pool
The death toll from a mudslide that has left 90 people
missing in Washington state appeared certain to climb nearly a
week after the disaster, as anguished relatives turned to the
Internet and word of mouth for scarce scraps of new
At least 26 people were killed when a rain-soaked hillside
collapsed without warning last Saturday, unleashing a
towering wall of mud that flattened dozens of homes in a
river valley near the rural town of Oso, about 55 miles (89
km) northeast of Seattle.
While fire officials directing search operations at the
disaster site have spoken of making slow but steady progress
in recovering remains of victims buried in the slide, the
tally of the dead has changed little in recent days, even as
the number of those listed as missing has held steady.
The lag appears related to a methodical protocol being
followed by Snohomish County emergency management officials
and medical examiners.
County authorities say coroners have so far examined and
identified the remains of just 17 people, including an infant
whose body was retrieved on Thursday, and they are the only
ones counted so far in the official death toll.
Remains of nine more individuals were previously reported to
have been located in the square-mile (2.6 square-km) heap of
mud-caked debris and muck, but as of Friday they had been
excluded from the formal tally of lives lost.
County officials have insisted on revising that list only as
each set of remains goes through the painstaking process of
being examined and identified by coroners, leaving the public
mostly in the dark about the retrieval of more bodies.
The process has likely also been slowed by the condition of
some of the remains, which according to rescue workers are
not always being found intact.
News of additional remains being located and recovered has
been trickling out to family members of the missing and dead
through word-of-mouth and other channels, however, thanks to
community members working side-by-side with rescue teams in
the search for more victims.
CHURCHES AND FIRE STATIONS
Area churches and fire stations are also go-to venues for
members of the community seeking updates, said Gail Moffett
of Oso, who lives 2 miles from the disaster site and works at
a hardware store in nearby Arlington.
"I go home and talk to the source, because it's family," she
said of the community network, including locally based rescue
workers, she has tapped into for information.
"They are all out there on the mudslide every day, going back
and going back and going back, day after day after day, to
make a difference and to help our people. And they just keep
doing it and they come in at night and their butts dragging,
covered in mud, and their faces are not the faces I knew last
week," she said.
Authorities have also in some cases allowed victims'
relatives onto the disaster site as the remains of loved ones
are recovered, and a moment of silence is observed, as
occurred when the body of the infant was extricated on
In one tragic case, a volunteer member of the search team,
Dayn Brunner, pulled the body of his own sister 36-year-old
Summer Raffo, from the mud pile on Wednesday. She was driving
through the area when the slide buried her in her car.
Brunner, 42, took a day off to grieve and rest, then returned
to the debris field on Friday to resume the search for more
An estimated 180 people lived in the path of the landslide.
Now, nearly a week after the disaster, fears have grown that
the final death toll could approach the 90 people still
listed as missing or unaccounted for - a figure authorities
arrived at on Wednesday after winnowing a much larger list by
Authorities have said that some of those killed might never
be found, and on Thursday braced the public for news - still
yet to come - that the number of dead would increase
substantially in the next 24 to 48 hours.
Authorities have so far publicly identified five dead, while
withholding the names of others listed as dead or missing.
But about 40 people have been identified on a local blog site
as potential landslide victims, including several members of
All of those discovered alive in the mud were rescued by
helicopter within the first few hours after the landslide,
and rescuers have found no further signs of life, officials
Volunteer Bob Michajla, 66, taking a break from work combing
through debris and clearing a stretch of road in the disaster
zone, said the search was entering a more difficult phase.
"They found the easy bodies in the first few days. The rest
of them are probably buried. That's what I was told," said
Michajla, his face and fingers caked in mud.
Local fire district chief Travis Hots said rain and wind
sweeping the area on Friday was working against the
round-the-clock search efforts. A flash flood alert was
posted for the county, extending through the next three days.
With hopes for finding any additional survivors continuing to
fade while uncertainty over the fate of dozens more lingers
on, the mood among the community has grown grimmer.
"This is going to get harder and harder," said Dan Rankin,
mayor of nearby Darrington, as he choked back tears at a town
hall meeting attended by hundreds of people on Thursday
evening. "We need each other more and more."
Bernie Tamez, 39, said he was comfortable that officials were
dealing with the community forthrightly, despite the dearth
of tangible information.
"They're keeping us informed," said Tamez, a machinist who
took the week off to volunteer in Darrington where he lives.
Turned away from helping at the pile, he has instead helped
out in the community kitchen that has been feeding a few
hundred people each night before the town hall meeting.
Meanwhile, residents like 45-year-old Larry Dwyer who escaped
the slide marveled at their luck.
"We were driving on that exact stretch two weeks ago. We were
right there," Dwyer said as he watched his three sons wave
signs ushering motorists toward a food drive at an Arlington
market on a rainy Thursday evening. "That's why we're out
here right now. It's a karma thing. When it's not you, you
Authorities were investigating the cause of the mudslide. The
Washington State Department of Natural Resources said it
would review recent forestry activities in the area to
determine whether they might have been a factor.