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March 30, 2014

Number of missing from Washington slide plummets

DARRINGTON, Wash. — As crews using heavy equipment, dogs and their bare hands searched in heavy rain for more victims from a deadly Washington landslide, authorities said Saturday that the number of people believed missing had dropped substantially.

The missing list decreased from 90 to 30 a week after the slide destroyed the small mountainside community of Oso north of Seattle. Officials previously said they expected that figure to fall as they worked to find people safe and cross-referenced a “fluid” list that likely included partial reports and duplicates.

As the number of people unaccounted for went down, the fatalities went up.

The official death toll of victims identified by the medical examiner on Saturday increased by one, to 18, said Jason Biermann, program manager at the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management.

Authorities have recovered more than two dozen bodies — including one on Saturday — but they aren’t added to the official tally until a formal identification is made.

Underscoring the difficulty of identifying those killed in one of the deadliest landslides in U.S. history, Biermann said crews are not always discovering complete remains.

“Rescuers are not always making full recoveries,” he said. “Often, they are making partial recoveries.”

A week after the landslide 55 miles northeast of Seattle, the search was going “all the way to the dirt” as crews looked for anything to provide answers for family and friends.

All work on the debris field halted briefly Saturday for a moment of silence to honor those lost. Gov. Jay Inslee had asked people across Washington to pause at 10:37 a.m., the time the huge slide struck on March 22.

“People all over stopped work — all searchers — in honor of that moment,” Snohomish County Fire District 1 battalion chief Steve Mason said.

An American flag had been run up a tree and then down to half-staff at the debris site, he said.

Among the dozens of missing are Adam Farnes, and his mother, Julie.

“He was a giant man with a giant laugh,” Kellie Howe said of Farnes. Howe became friends with him when he moved to the area from Alaska. She said Adam Farnes was the kind of guy who would come into your house and help you do the dishes.

Adam Farnes also played the banjo, drums and bass guitar, she said, and had worked as a telephone lineman and a 911 dispatcher.

“He loved his music loud,” she said.

Finding and identifying all the victims could stretch on for a very long time, and authorities have warned that not everyone may ultimately be accounted for.

Rescuers have given a cursory look at the entire debris field, said Steve Harris, division supervisor for the eastern incident management team. They are now sifting through the rest of the fragments, looking for places where dogs should give extra attention. Only “a very small percentage” has received the more thorough examination, he said.

Dogs working four-hour shifts have been the most useful tool, Harris said, but they’re getting hypothermic in the rain and muck.

Commanders are making sure people have the right gear to stay safe in the rain and potentially hazardous materials, and they’re keeping a close eye on the level of the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River to be sure nobody is trapped by rising water.

At the debris site Saturday, Mason, the battalion chief, said teams first do a hasty search of any wreckage of homes they find. If nothing is immediately discovered, they do a more detailed, forensic search.

“We go all the way to the dirt,” he said.

Crews are also collecting bags of personal belongings that would later be cleaned, sorted and hopefully returned to families.

“What we found out here is everything from pictures to gun safes,” Mason said.

The huge wall of earth that crashed into the collection of homes followed weeks of heavy rain.

A week later, only local volunteers like Joe Wright are now being allowed to help rescuers.

The Darrington resident set up his tool-sharpening operation near the firehouse. He’s been busy. In a little more than a day, he estimated he had sharpened more than 150 chainsaw chains dulled by rocks and dirt.

“There were people using their own saws,” Wright said. “They’re just trying to get down there to get the job done.”

Dan Rankin, mayor of the nearby logging town of Darrington, said the community had been “changed forevermore.”

“It’s going to take a long time to heal, and the likelihood is we will probably never be whole,” he said.

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