Search For Missing WA Mudslide Victims Comes Down To Shovels


UPDATED: Friday March 28, 2014 3:38 PM

 There is only one way searchers are narrowing the list of 90 people still missing seven days after a landslide obliterated the mountain community of Oso: by digging.

There are no more phone calls being made out of the Snohomish County Emergency Operations Center to determine whether some on the list were away and just haven't checked in since Saturday morning's slide. No house checks in nearby neighborhoods to see if someone may have been missed.

That left authorities to prepare the public for an announcement Friday morning that the official death toll was set to rise from 17. They previously acknowledged at least another nine bodies had been located but not yet recovered.

Family members have reported additional fatalities but authorities were carefully coordinating with the National Guard and the county medical examiner's office to process the bodies that have been recovered.

"We understand there has been confusion over the reported number of fatalities," Snohomish County District 21 Fire Chief Travis Hots said Thursday night in a statement. "This has been a challenging process for all of us."

"That number is going to likely change very, very much tomorrow morning," Hots said at a Thursday evening news briefing.

In nearly the same breath, he continued to insist the searchers may still find survivors, though that belief appeared to be waning..

"I want to brace everybody that the chance is very slim," Hots said. "But we haven't given up."

The possibility that dozens more people may be buried in the debris pile besides the 26 bodies already found has the potential to place Oso, with a total population of about 180, among the worst tragedies in Washington state history.

The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens killed 57 people and a 1910 avalanche near Stevens Pass swept away two trains and killed 96.

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

Besides the 90 missing, authorities are checking into 35 other people who may or may not have been in the area at the time of the slide. A group of people with the county emergency operations center is now making calls to eliminate that more-speculative list, said Marybeth O'Leary, a spokeswoman for the emergency operations center.

"They are names that are not complete names," she said. "They're things like `I work with a guy named Bill, he didn't show up to work today.'"

The governor has asked for more federal assistance, saying $4.5 million was expected to be spent on the response to the mudslide. Inslee's request was to expand Monday's federal emergency declaration that provided response teams and equipment.

©2014 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.