Work stops briefly at slide site to honor victims
Mar 30, 2014 at 6:00 AM
Crews searching for victims in the tangled debris field from the Washington mudslide halted their work Saturday for a moment of silence to honor those lost.
Gov. Jay Inslee had asked people across Washington to pause at 10:37 a.m. The huge slide that destroyed a neighborhood in Oso north of Seattle struck at that time on March 22. Authorities say they've found at least 25 bodies and scores remain missing.
The grueling work with heavy equipment and bare hands in the mass of smashed homes, tree limbs and quicksand-like mud stopped briefly late Saturday morning.
"People all over stopped work —all searchers — in honor of that moment, so people we are searching for know we are serious," Snohomish County Fire District 1 battalion chief Steve Mason said.
An American flag had been run up a tree and then down to half-staff at the debris site, he said.
The slide that struck 55 miles northeast of Seattle is one of the deadliest landslides ever in the United States.
Finding and identifying victims could stretch on for a very long time.
"It's a very, very slow process. It was miserable to begin with, and as you all know, it has rained heavily in the last few days, it's made the quicksand even worse," Snohomish County Executive Director Gary Haakenson said at a Friday evening briefing. "I cannot possibly tell you how long this will last, or when, or if they will find more bodies. We hope that we do, but right now there's no telling."
Crews may be finding more remains amid the destruction, but Haakenson said the official death toll will remain at 17 until medical examiners can further complete their work.
Authorities have located at least eight other bodies in addition to the 17, and they previously said they expect the number of fatalities from the March 22 mudslide to rise substantially.
Ninety people were listed as missing, but hope for them began fading by midweek when they had not checked in with friends or relatives, and no one had emerged from the pile alive.
Leslie Zylstra said everybody in town knows someone who died, and the village was coming to grips with the fact that many of the missing may remain entombed in the debris.
"The people know there's no way anybody could have survived," said Zylstra, who used to work in an Arlington hardware store. "They just want to have their loved ones, to bury their loved ones."
Haakenson described for the first time Friday the difficulty of the searchers' task. When a body is found, the spot is marked for a helicopter pickup. That only happens when the helicopters are able to fly in the wind and rain that has pummeled the search area. The victim is then placed in a truck in a holding area.
At the end of the day, all the recovered victims are transported to the medical examiner's office about 20 miles away in Everett.
"Autopsies are performed, the process of identification takes place — if possible," Haakenson said. "The identification process has been very, very challenging."
Authorities have had to rely heavily on dental records, Haakenson told The Seattle Times. In a few cases, medical examiner's investigators have had to use DNA testing.
In addition to bearing the stress of the disaster, townspeople were increasingly frustrated by the lack of information from authorities, said Mary Schoenfeldt, a disaster traumatologist who has been providing counseling services at schools and for public employees and volunteers.
"The anger and frustration is starting to rise," she said.
That's normal for this phase of a disaster, as is the physical toll taken by not having eaten or slept normally in days, she said.
The catastrophe, which followed weeks of heavy rain, was shaping up to be one of the deadliest in U.S. history.
Previous slides triggered by storms included one that killed 150 people in Virginia in the wake of Hurricane Camille in 1969 and another that killed 129 when rain from Tropical Storm Isabel loosened tons of mud that buried the Puerto Rican community of Mameyes in 1985.
A dam in San Francisquito Canyon, Calif., collapsed in 1928, causing an abutment to give way and killing 500 people, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey.