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‘Oso Strong’ tested after two weeks of searching through mudslide for victims

Faith leaders of the local ministerial association hold hands in a prayer circle before the start of the prayer service event for the communities affected Highway 530 mudslide, "Together Evening of Prayer," at Haller Middle School in Arlington, on Friday, April 4, 2014. (AP Photo/POOL, Marcus Yam)
  • The number of people listed as missing has dropped to 15. Officials said that 44-year-old Victor Ford has been removed.
  • The medical examiner has raised the mudslide death toll to 30 – and that number has not changed since Thursday morning. It has identified 29 victims.

Leaders of two federal agencies responding to the Washington mudslide visited the debris field on Sunday.

Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson joined Gov. Jay Inslee, U.S. senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Rep. Suzan DelBene in touring clean-up and recovery efforts at the mudslide site.

Johnson urged anyone affected by the slide to apply for FEMA aid.

Gov. Jay Inslee was among several hundred people who gathered Friday night for an interdenominational prayer service honoring the victims, families and rescuers affected by the deadly March 22 mudslide in Oso.

Hanging at the front of the Haller Middle School gym where the service took place was a large banner that simply said “Together.”

Clergy involved in planning the Arlington event wanted to reflect the connection among neighbors not only in Oso but in nearby Arlington and Darrington, KING reported.

The audience twice gave standing ovations to first responders who continue to search the debris for missing people.

“Nobody, and I mean nobody, could be prepared for what we encountered,” Arlington Fire Chief Bruce Stedman told the crowd.

Workers have been digging channels in the debris field in Oso to help divert the water from the rain that’s expected over the next few days. They are trying to keep the search areas as dry as possible.

And after two weeks of digging through the debris, searchers are still determined to find every person lost in the mud.

In the search for victims of the mudslide, that struck the small community of Oso on the Saturday morning of March 22, the death toll has reached 30. Twenty-eight of those victims have been identified.

Workers have dug down to ground soil in many locations in the debris field.

The mud they’ve removed has been piled up to create berms, almost like a dyke system, to channel the two inches of rain expected over the next 48 hours. That should keep the areas left to search from getting too wet.

There are many areas in the debris field that workers have yet to access. Walking along the Stillaguamish River on the slide side of what was Highway 530, giant trees are piled two stories high. They are mixed with pieces of homes, cars and other debris from the once peaceful neighborhood.

“You look over there and see a drift boat,” incident commander Lieutenant Richard Burke said from deep inside the slide zone. “You see a pair of wheels off of a wagon, and you think that was some kid’s wagon, same wagon I bought for my son when he was 5 years old. It can’t help but change you.”

Even after weeks on the job, Burke is still amazed by what he sees in the slide zone, the mounds of mud, the devastation, the power of this slide.

But what amazes him even more is the determination of the searchers.

“You show up at the firehouse at 8 a.m. and you watch everybody duct-taping their pants, and they’re coming out here to work,” he said. “They’re tired. They’re banged up. They are so dedicated to helping this community. It’s amazing.”

But how long will they continue to search? There are 15 names on the missing list as of Friday morning. Everyone wants to keep going until they find everyone, and searchers have vowed to stay in the mud until the families tell them to stop.

Burke said that’s a call he doesn’t get to make.

“We’re all realistic,” he said. “We all understand this is a gargantuan project. We’re just going to take it a day at a time. Right now, we just show up and go to work.”

That’s the spirit in the debris field that has come to define this disaster. It’s a tireless dedication to the families who have lost everything.

KIRO Radio’s Chris Sullivan, the staff and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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