Officials, media at odds over release of updated mudslide death toll
Tensions are mounting between the official spokesman for the Oso mudslide and a number of media members frustrated with the lack of updated information about the number of people killed in the disaster.
The official death toll remained at 16 for several days and was only increased to 17 Friday, while officials and family members have acknowledged far more victims have been located in the debris field.
Snohomish Fire District 21 chief Travis Hots told reporters Thursday night he would release an updated number at a briefing Friday, only to backtrack Friday morning.
Hots said the number has not changed because of a systematic process by the medical examiner to identify victims and notify family members.
“This is a sensitive situation for the people who have lost their loved ones,” Hots said. “The numbers that I can give are from the Medical Examiner’s office. I can’t give you numbers that I get off of a social media site from somebody that’s up at the scene.”
But some media members have criticized Hots and others, complaining in briefings both Thursday and Friday they are withholding information family members are desperate to hear.
“Why can’t you talk about what’s happening in the field?” asked one reporter. “There’s only been four names reported,” complained another.
But KIRO Radio’s John Curley sides with Hots, and accuses some media members of being far more interested in the numbers to sensationalize the story rather than serving the public interest.
Curley says it’s clear officials are dealing with unfathomable devastation that makes it difficult to identify victims.
“You see what this mudslide a mile long and 20-40 feet high at the speed it was traveling, what it did to an ATV and what it does to a car, actually tears it in half, so you can imagine what it does to the human body,” he says. “I’m sure these medical examiners are probably working with very little bits of evidence as to who this person was.”
KIRO Radio’s Tom Tangney argues that so many have been impacted and interest is so widespread in the tragedy that officials have an obligation to provide more information in a timely manner, or at least a better explanation than Hots has been offering.
“Maybe if he could explain why it’s slow. It sounds to me like he was retreating behind a kind of bureaucratic reason,” Tangney says. “It’s not just ghoulish reasons, it’s not just a kind of voyeuristic interest. We want to help people, we want to know the tragedies of these stories, these people’s lives. I think it actually helps us to become more human,” Tangney says.
But many KIRO Radio listeners disagree.
“I am disgusted with the media’s obsession with the body count. Disgusting. Back off jerks,” wrote one listener shortly after Friday morning’s briefing.
“Of course the press is out of line. They’re not representing the families, they’re representing the 24-hour machine.”
Curley speculates that while officials have released limited information about the number of fatalities, behind the scenes it’s likely they have been in close contact with families and provided them as much support and information as possible.
“I think that they are in the inner circle of information. I think they’re getting information the rest of us don’t get because we don’t need that information.”