Rescue workers struggle through the mud looking for victims
of the mudslide in Oso, Washington. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Recovery teams struggling through thick mud up to their
armpits and heavy downpours at the site of the devastating
landslide in Washington state are facing yet another challenge
- an unseen and potentially dangerous stew of toxic
Sewage, propane, household solvents and other chemicals lie
beneath the surface of the gray mud and rubble that engulfed
hundreds of acres of a small, rural community and left dozens
dead and missing northeast of Seattle on the morning of March
The official death toll stood at 21 on Monday, with 30 people
still listed as unaccounted for nine days after a rain-soaked
hillside collapsed above the north fork of the Stillaguamish
County officials planned to present their next update on the
status of the recovery operations at 11 a.m. local time on
Managers of the recovery operation were taking special
measures to protect the hundreds of workers on the scene from
chemical exposure and to prevent toxic sludge from being
"We're worried about dysentery, we're worried about tetanus,
we're worried about contamination," local fire Lieutenant
Richard Burke, a spokesman for the operation, told reporters
visiting the disaster site on Sunday. "The last thing we want
to do is take any of these contaminants out of here and take
them into town, back to our families."
The torrent of mud released by the slide roared over both
stream banks and across state Highway 530, flattening dozens
of homes on the outskirts of the town of Oso in the foothills
of the Cascade Mountains.
Jason Biermann, program manager for the Snohomish County
Emergency Management Department, said late on Sunday that the
official loss of life so far included 15 victims whose
remains have been identified by medical examiners and six
more still awaiting positive identification.
He said four additional sets of remains were found on Sunday
that for reasons not explained to reporters were being left
out of the official tally of dead.
NO SIGNS OF LIFE
Authorities have offered conflicting casualty figures, and
the process of accounting for the number of dead has likely
been complicated by the condition of some bodies that rescue
workers have said are not always found intact.
They have in recent days reported locating a number of bodies
that have not been included in the official death toll,
previous to the four reported on Sunday, but have not
provided further updates on the status of those remains.
No one has been pulled out alive and no signs of life have
been detected since the day the landslide hit, when at least
eight people were injured but survived.
Officials have conceded it may be impossible to account for
everyone lost in the disaster, and that some victims might
end up being permanently entombed under the mound of muck and
debris, which county authorities say covers 1 square mile
(2.6 sq km).
Scores of recovery workers, including National Guard troops
just back from Afghanistan, picked through the swampy,
rubble-strewn mud on Sunday as overcast but dry weather
provided a welcome respite from heavy rains of recent days.
Weather forecasts for the week ahead showed a continued
drying trend, "which will help crews and reduce the risk of
flooding and additional slides," the county said in a
Some parts of the slide area, buried beneath 15 to 75 feet (5
to 23 meters) of mud, twisted tree trunks and wreckage, were
still too dangerous to enter, Burke told reporters.
Like most workers at the site, Burke's boots were sealed to
his trousers with duct tape, a precaution to keep toxic
sludge out of his clothing. National Guard troops also set up
a decontamination station where workers scrubbed themselves
with soap and hot water before leaving the site.
"This is going to be a hazardous materials site for many
years while we try to get this cleaned up," Burke said.
Governor Jay Inslee, who toured the disaster zone by
helicopter on Sunday, said relatives had not given up all
hope of finding a "miracle" survivor, and neither had
"We're looking for that miracle right now," the governor said
during a stop at an airfield in the neighboring town of
Arlington. "If we don't find that miracle, they're also
looking for the knowledge of the fate of their loved ones."