Grim task of searching for bodies continues at slide site

OSO, Washington — Already wet search conditions are about to worsen for those working through the debris of one of the worst natural disasters in Washington state history.

Searchers at the site of the Oslo mudslide continue at a feverish pace, though the death toll has remained at 17 for three days.

Forecasts show up to an inch is expected to fall by Saturday morning, increasing the risk for another slide.

While officials have acknowledged finding at least 26 bodies so far, the official death toll stands at 17 because until the Snohomish County Medical Examiner's office is able to identify the bodies, they cannot be added to the official list.

Rain and winds Friday meant helicopters could not get into the slide site to remove bodies that had been found and transport them to the examiner's office.

The list of those who died will be updated "eventually," but it's going to stay "in the medical examiner's office until we're completely comfortable with it," Snohomish County executive director Gary Haakenson said at a news briefing Friday night.

"The crews are finding bodies in the field. It's a very slow process. It was miserable to begin with, and as you all know, it's rained heavily the past few days," he said.

"I cannot possibly tell you how this will end and when, or if, they'll find more bodies," Haakenson said. "We always want to hold out hope but I think we have to at some point expect the worst."

At 10:37 a.m. on March 22 an enormous piece of 600-foot Skaglund Hill sloughed off in a landslide. An estimated 15 million cubic yards of dirt, rocks and vegetation thundered across the North fork of the Stillaguamish river, obliterating Steelhead Drive and 49 homes.

The slide continued across Highway 530, the main connection to the town of Darrington about 20 miles east.

Close to 300 people worked Friday searching the area for bodies. They included professional rescue teams, hazmat technicians "and a huge contingent of residents of the area, at least 100," said Steve Mason, battalion commander with Snohomish District 1 Fire Department.

"There are people down here digging for their loved ones," he said.

Rain began Friday and an inch or more is expected to fall over the weekend. The mud at the slide site is deep and in places almost liquid.

Searchers are working "waist deep in the mud," Mason said.

Every so often, they do a "field walk," where a group links arms and walks across, looking out for anything unusual.

The teams are looking not only for remains, but also photos and memorabilia for families who have lost everything, Mason said.

As teams cycle off the search for rest, they are hosed down to remove potentially hazardous material from their boots and legs.

To the side of the slide area is a series of open-sided tent canopies where they can get food and drink, or talk with waiting chaplains, Sadie and Tom Hawkins with the Washington State Fish & Wildlife agency.

There's also a therapy dog, a retriever/beagle mix, brought in to help comfort people in traumatic situations, Mason said.

As work at the site goes on, volunteers and helpers are pouring into Arlington, the town 11 miles to the west of Steelhead Drive. It is the main entry point for those coming from Interstate I-5.

Hotels are full and turning away people who want to help. Officials are pleading that no more food be brought to the firehouses.

"The best thing to donate is cash, we've got enough clothing and food dropped off," said Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots.

People have "lost their entire families. There are funerals that will need to be paid for, they need to rebuild. I'm pleading with you to continue to give support to them and donate," he said.

Sales of "Oso Strong" t-shirts have so far raised $25,000, KING-TV reported.

Locals are looking to see what's specifically needed. Marlyn Kirkpatrick manages the Quality Inn in Arlington and saw on the news that the men and women doing the searching were caked in mud.

What they needed, she thought, was shampoo, soap and towels, something she and her colleagues at the towns' other hotels and motel had in abundance.

"I started calling people last night, asking 'Hey, do you guys have any extra towels, any extra soap?'"

She's taking their donations in Friday night after work. "It's amazing how people just took action right away," she said.

Pool reporting: Dominic Gates, The Seattle Times


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