Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Mudslide rescuers battle elements

A search and rescue worker carrying a probe peers into the remains of a building on the eastern edge of the massive mudslide (AP)

Weary rescuers have battled rain and exhaustion in the search for more bodies - and perhaps a miracle - among the pile of filth and debris that laid waste to a Washington town and killed at least 25 people.

Rescue and cadaver dogs occasionally led crews to a wrecked car or the ruins of a house containing a body. Teams then began removing the corpse, ignoring the muck that clogged their tools. As the victim was taken away, silence fell over the site.

The main goal now is to find more bodies and winnow the list of the 90 people who are still missing in the mudslide that buried the community of Oso on Saturday.

The official death toll rose to 17 today as the Snohomish County medical examiner's office announced it had received the body of an infant recovered earlier.

Authorities have warned the community a higher toll would be announced later.

"I fully expect that number to go up here very, very soon," said district fire chief Travis Hots.

At this point, narrowing the missing list means only one thing: digging. There are no more phone calls to relatives or door-to-door searches in the hope of locating people who have not yet checked in.

"At this time, we're not using any other type of methods other than the search and rescue," said Casey Broom of the Snohomish County emergency operations centre.

Authorities have not released the names on the list of missing.

The 200-plus people working on the sludgy heap cling to hope that at least one survivor is waiting for them in some pocket of the pile, which is a square mile wide and 40ft deep in places.

Three victims - Christina Jefferds, 45, of Arlington; Stephen Neal, 55, of Darrington, and Linda McPherson, 69, of Arlington - have been officially identified and f amily members have confirmed a handful of other fatalities to news organisations.

The body of Ms Jefferds' granddaughter, four-month-old Sanoah Huestis, was found yesterday.

Five people injured by the mudslide remain in a Seattle hospital, including a five-month-old boy in a critical condition.

Besides the 90 missing, authorities are checking 35 other people who may or may not have been in the area at the time of the slide.

If dozens more bodies are found or left entombed in the debris, the Oso mudslide could become one of Washington state's largest disasters. The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens killed 57 people, and a 1910 avalanche near Stevens Pass that struck two trains killed 96.

"We do know this could end up being the largest mass loss of Washingtonians," state governor Jay Inslee said. "We're looking for miracles to occur."

The searchers walk on plywood pathways to keep from sinking into the sucking slurry, but their task was made more difficult by rain that saturated the sand, silt and clay that make up the debris pile.

"You'll fall in waist-deep in some areas, knee-deep in some areas," said Washington National Guard senior airman Charlotte Gibson. "We just keep pushing on, doing what we can as slowly and meticulously as we can to make sure we don't miss anything."

Despite the new rain, water levels on the eastern side of the slide area receded, uncovering flattened homes and crushed cars that previously were inaccessible.

Boats with dogs on board searched the areas, and crews inserted underwater cameras into vehicles to see if anybody was inside. Excavators pulled one car out of the muck, but it was unclear if they discovered anybody.

The moisture made the already treacherous surface even more unstable and raised concern about the safety of collapsed hillside above them.

A University of Washington researcher now says there were two major slides on Saturday morning.

The bigger slide that hit Oso lasted more than two minutes, and was followed four minutes later by the second one, Kate Allstadt wrote on the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network blog.

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