Valdosta Daily Times

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March 27, 2014

Mudslide missing number drops to 90

DARRINGTON, Wash. — Washington authorities on Wednesday reduced to 90 the number of people missing from a community wiped out by a mudslide, as the families and friends of those still unaccounted for begin to confront the reality that some may never be found.

No victims were recovered Wednesday, leaving the official death toll at 16, with an additional eight bodies located but not recovered, Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington said. Authorities said they expected to update the toll Thursday morning.

The number of missing had been fluctuating — at one point reaching as high as 220 — but authorities were able to verify that 140 people once reported missing had been located, Pennington said.

That left 90 people still missing, plus 35 others who may or may not have been in the area at the time of the slide. Authorities will focus on finding those 90, but Pennington acknowledged that not everybody may be located.

“Would I like to see it drop to zero? Yes. Do I think it will? No,” he said.

The revised numbers come at the end of a rain-soaked fifth day of searching for survivors in the small community of Oso, some 55 miles southeast of Seattle. But as time passes and the death toll continues to rise, the chances grow increasingly dim of finding people alive amid the debris.

With little hope to cling to, family members of the missing are beginning realize their loved ones may remain entombed forever inside a mountain of mud that is believed to have claimed more than 20 lives.

Becky Bach watches and waits, hoping that search crews find her brother and three other relatives who are missing in Washington state’s deadly mudslide.

Doug Massingale waits too, for word about his 4-month-old granddaughter. Searchers were able to identify carpet from the infant’s bedroom, but a log jam stood in the way of a more thorough effort to find little Sanoah Huestis, known as “Snowy.”

“It just generates so many questions if they don’t find them,” Bach said. “I’ve never known anybody to die in a natural disaster. Do they issue death certificates?”

Search crews using dogs, bulldozers and their bare hands kept slogging through the mess of broken wood and mud, but authorities have acknowledged they might have to leave some victims buried.

Trying to recover every corpse would be impractical and dangerous. The debris field is about a square mile and 30 to 40 feet deep in places, with a moon-like surface that includes quicksand-like muck, rain-slickened mud and ice. The terrain is difficult to navigate on foot and makes it treacherous or impossible to bring in heavy equipment.

To make matters worse, the pile is laced with other hazards that include fallen trees, propane and septic tanks, twisted vehicles and countless shards of shattered homes.

“We have to get on with our lives at some point,” said Bach, who has spent the past several days in the area in hopes that searchers would find her brother, his wife, her 20-year-old great niece and the young girl’s fiance.

The knowledge that some victims could be abandoned to the earth is difficult to accept.

“Realistically ...I honestly don’t think they’re going to find them alive,” Bach said, crying. “But as a family, we’re trying to figure out what to do if they find no bodies.”

Bach spoke via phone about a wedding the family had planned for summer at the rural home that was destroyed.

And how, she wondered, do you plan a funeral without a body? “We’ll probably just have a memorial, and if they find the bodies eventually, then we’ll deal with that then.”

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