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29 killed in Oso mudslide; respect paid as more of the missing are discovered

A bird stands atop on debris at the site of March's fatal mudslide near Oso, Wash., on Tuesday, April 1, 2014. The March 22 mudslide destroyed a rural mountainside community northeast of Seattle. (AP Photo/The Herald, Mark Mulligan)
  • Medical examiner’s office identifies three more victims.
  • President Barack Obama has declared a major disaster for damage in the mudslide.
  • A 23-week-old baby injured in the slide, Duke Harrington was discharged from Harborview Medical Center Tuesday, in satisfactory condition. He was transferred to Seattle Children’s for follow-up treatment.
  • WSU students affected by the mudslide are offered a tuition reprieve.

When the giant excavators and chainsaws go quiet in Oso, everyone on the debris field knows what’s happening: human remains have been found in the mud.

The silence is their way of showing respect and compassion for the loss of life.

The death toll has risen to 29, and medical examiners have now identified 25 victims after releasing new names Wednesday afternoon. Thirteen more people are likely still missing in the debris.

At the site of the slide, pink ribbons on sticks mark the spots where human remains have been found.

Pierce County Sheriff’s Detective Ed Troyer is on the site – he showed up to relieve some of the first responders from the Arlington-Darrington areas who, after 11 days of searching, are understandably exhausted.

Troyer said excavators and backhoes are working as you have spotters on both sides watching to make sure no one gets hurt in the dangerous and contaminated conditions.

“When they do find human remains, everybody stops at the whole site – all eight or nine tractors – and it gets really quiet when they recover the human remains,” Troyer told KIRO Radio’s Ron & Don Show.

Incident commander Lieutenant Richard Burke of Bellevue Fire said finding bodies or partial remains is all these searchers have to give the grieving families, and that’s what drives them.

“We know that we’re going to provide some family some closure and that’s what this is about,” Burke said. “We’re in a phase now, where it’s really a hug and a handshake, it’s really all we have to give these people – some closure.”

Once someone has been found, crews move them from their location at the slide to the state medical examiner’s office.

“It’s that we’re removing family from here, and that’s somebody’s mom or daughter or husband or wife and so this entire group pays an incredible amount of respect to that,” said Burke.

Troyer was at the site Tuesday morning when someone was found. “It’s amazing how much sawing, how much work is going on. And how really quiet it gets when that process takes place.”

Search crews are still focusing on one particular area of the mud as they seek victims. Experts have narrowed the area of where they believe victims would have ended up in the slide.

Some areas are still 50-70 feet deep of mud, but that’s not going to stop searchers from finding what may lay beneath.

Over the past few days, the site has changed a lot, according to Troyer. “The water is all gone and it’s really opened up what’s happened up there. And it’s a lot of technical work, mixed in with a lot of labor and a lot of heavy machinery.”

That’s thanks in part to several mostly dry, clear days that allowed recovery workers to find more bodies. However, rain is forecast to return to western Washington by the end of the week.

The National Weather Service says rain will begin on the coast Thursday and spread to the Cascades by Friday. A chance of showers continues through the weekend.

Forecasters say the dry weather the past couple of days has allowed the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River to gradually fall, but rain could cause it to rise again in the slide area.

Emergency responders have also said they’re concerned about melting mountain snow causing the river to rise in warming spring weather.

Troyer said it won’t stop the determined responders on their search.

“They’re searching the whole area, they’re on the outside perimeter if there were vehicles or cars that were hit – it will be covered, cleared into the middle of it where houses slid down the hill and are buried in the deep areas. They’re going through every bit of it and then after they’ve done that there is not going to be anywhere else to really go, except for random spots which have already been searched,” said Troyer.

Troyer remains optimistic about the search and said he thinks crews will find many more missing victims.

But it won’t eliminate the grief altogether.

“There are specific people missing, junior high school and high school friends that are up here holding vigil you see a lot of yellow ribbons on the fences,” Troyer described. “A lot of people that are now coming to realize that the probability is that they’re not going to be found. More people here, that as the days go on and they see what’s happened up here, they’re at peace with that.”

For those hospitalized after the slide, their conditions are improving. Duke Suddarth, 23 weeks old, was discharged Tuesday from Harborview Medical Center in satisfactory condition. He was transferred to Seattle Children’s for follow-up treatment and is still under the care of UW School of Medicine faculty. Duke’s mother, Amanda Skorjanc, remains in satisfactory condition at Harborview and will face more surgery.

A 37-year-old man is in serious condition and improving in intensive care, a 58-year-old man is in satisfactory condition and is no longer in the ICU, and an 81-year-old man is in serious and improving condition in intensive care.

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

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