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More bodies found in Oso mudslide, death toll expected to keep climbing

A search and rescue worker stands in the middle of debris from a house Tuesday. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

  • Search teams recovered two more bodies and located eight others Tuesday, bringing the official death toll to 16, with at least 24 believed dead.
  • Mountain Loop Highway will reportedly reopen by 1 p.m. Wednesday.

Search teams scouring the mudslide debris field Tuesday in Oso recovered two more bodies and located eight more, officials said late Tuesday.

The official death toll now stands at 16, but is expected to increase Wednesday.

"We're going to stick with the number of 16 right now until those others are located and brought back to the medical examiner," said Snohomish Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots.

While the outlook for finding any survivors grows increasingly grim, Hots insisted crews were still considering their mission a rescue as well as recovery.

"We haven't lost hope that there's a possibility that we could find somebody alive in some pocket area," he said.

The number of missing persons reports remained 176 for a second straight day as officials continued trying to compile a more accurate list. Three Snohomish County sheriff's deputies with expertise in missing persons cases have been brought in to assist in determining the actual number of those missing.

Many of the 176 names are believed to be duplicates. "We know that the community was approximately 200. And we also know that it was Saturday morning and a lot of people were home. And (State Route) 530 is a question that we all have. What's under 530 at this point? So we don't know the number, but we're pretty confident it's lower than (176.) But that's the number that we're working with," said John Pennington, Director of Snohomish County Emergency Management

A 50-member National Guard Search and Extraction Team and FEMA urban search and rescue team arrived to help aid the search Tuesday.

Officials have also called in the Washington State Mortuary Assistance Team.

"There's a point at which you bring them in and that point is now," said Pennington.

The Darrington Fire Department says about 60 civilian volunteers showed up Tuesday morning to help with the mudslide search and rescue operation.

Hots said people searching on their own are not in their communication system and cannot receive updated information about the mudslide, putting themselves at risk.

Volunteer spokeswoman Cindy White said they won't be able to accept any more volunteers Tuesday.

A number of people continued their own search for their loved ones throughout Monday.

Difficult Conditions

Heavy rains hampered Tuesday's effort, as approximately 200 responders slogged through the massive debris field now being called "the pile," Hots said.

"It's almost like walking on ice out there," he said. "It's just slow tedious work."

Hots said he was again overwhelmed by the power and scale of the destruction, seeing the remnants of cars shredded into tiny pieces.

"What we're finding is these vehicles are twisted and tore up into is just amazing the magnitude and the force that this slide has created and what this has done."

Hots said the dangerous conditions including deep pools of water under debris forced rescuers to curtail operations until Wednesday morning. But he said over 200 responders will resume full-scale operations at first light.

"We're going at it full steam ahead to get everybody out there that's missing," he said.

Community Support

Officials announced the creation of a special family assistance center at an undisclosed location in the Arlington area for those who've lost someone in the mudslide.

"This family assistance center is about unifying and bringing together the information for those that are in that grieving process and helping them directly and with extraordinary privacy," Pennington said.

Pennington also announced the establishment of a 24-hour crisis line at 800-584-3578 for anyone touched by the tragedy to get professional help in dealing with the massive tragedy.

"This is not just for victims. It's not just for the relatives. This is something that is established for us as a community," he said. "We are all parents or brothers or sisters or husbands and when we hear about the loss of life it eventually catches up to us and it's very important that we all begin that process of addressing that. Don't suppress it."

The river and rain

Geologists said the Stillaguamish River continues to carve out a new channel and is slowly relieving pressure from the blockage upstream.

However, rain this week will mean a higher volume of water in the river.

"We expect the river to go up. The river downstream the slide estimated three to four feet, depends on how heavy the rain gets over the next three to four days," said Steve Thompson Snohomish County Public Works Director.

"There's a big impoundment behind the slide. It (the water level) might go up a half a foot or a little less - nothing that will hamper the rescue efforts at this point," said Thompson.

As of Monday afternoon, seven homes upstream were flooded up to their eaves.

Thompson said they're working on punching a hole through the snow on Mountain Loop Highway to give the residents of Darrington alternative access to town.

"We're requesting the users to be careful because it will be a mountainous road," he said.

The final number, the real number of missing people, Pennington said, is still unknown.

The information-gathering process has been complicated by the nature of the rural area 55 miles north of Seattle where the slide hit Saturday morning. Pennington said officials have determined it included 49 parcels containing some kind of structure - including manufactured homes, a cabin and vacation properties. Not every structure was occupied full time. Some were only used sporadically. Complicating matters further is the fact that it's believed some nonresidents were working in the area and some victims may have been driving through the state highway that was also covered by mud.

Snohomish County has established a single phone number for reports. He asked that even if someone has already made a missing persons report, but didn't make that report to Snohomish County, they call (425) 388-5088, to report that person missing again.

Officials also asked that those who escaped the mudslide area or those who had homes in the area, also call the number so they may also be accounted for.

Pennington credits the number with helping gather information Monday.

"It's exactly what we were looking for which was information and data," he said.

Describing the scene

Hots said crews were faced with significant challenges working in the area, with some rescuers saying it was taking five minutes to slog just 40-50 feet through the muck.

The debris field is a dangerous mess - 15 feet thick in some places. "It's muddy, in areas it's like quicksand," said Hots. Searchers are also running into gasoline and septic discharge and dealing with ground that geologists warn remains unstable.

Pennington said that after examining the property records for the area, they determined 59 empty lots were impacted. Also in the 1-square-mile area, 49 parcels of land had "some structures" on them, including one cabin, 13 manufactured homes, 35 homes - 25 of which were believed to have been occupied at the time of the mudslide, and 10 were part-time or vacation homes.

The slide has destroyed at least 30 homes.

Injured in the slide

The 1-square-mile slide also critically injured several people -- including an infant.

A 5-month-old boy and an 81-year-old man remained in critical condition in the intensive care unit Tuesday evening at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. They're both improving. Hospital spokeswoman Susan Gregg said two men, ages 37 and 58, are in serious condition, while 25-year-old Amanda Skorjanc, the infant's mother, remains in satisfactory condition.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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