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Another Body Seen In Wash. Mudslide Debris

By: Associated Press News Email
By: Associated Press News Email

CBS News Copy

DARRINGTON, Wash. -- Authorities say another body has been located in the debris field from Saturday's massive mudslide.

Officials also reduced the number of people unaccounted for to 90, as the families and friends of those still unaccounted for begin to confront the reality that some may never be found.

CBS Seattle affiliate KIRO-TV reports that Mukilteo, Wash. Assistant Fire Chief Brian McMahan told a community meeting in Darrington late Wednesday night that the 25th body had been found earlier in the day.

The official death toll remained at 16, with the number other bodies spotted but not recovered now at 9.

Earlier, Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington had put that number at 8.

Authorities said they expected more bodies to be found Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Snohomish County medical examiner's office released its first official identification of a victim. The medical examiner says 45-year-old Christina A. Jefferds of Arlington, Wash., died of blunt impact injuries.

The number of unaccounted for has been fluctuating - at one point reaching as high as 220 - but authorities were able to verify that 140 people reported unaccounted for had been located, Pennington said Wednesday. That left 90 people unaccounted for, plus 35 others who may or may not have been in the area at the time of the slide.

The revised numbers come at the end of a rain-soaked fifth day of searching for survivors in the small community of Oso, southeast of Seattle. But as time passes and the death toll continues to rise, the chances grow increasingly dim of finding people alive amid the debris.

With little hope to cling to, family members of the unaccounted for are beginning realize their loved ones may remain entombed forever inside a mountain of mud that is believed to have claimed more than 20 lives.

Becky Bach watches and waits, hoping that search crews find her brother and three other relatives who are unaccounted for in Washington state's deadly mudslide.

Doug Massingale waits too, for word about his 4-month-old granddaughter. Searchers were able to identify carpet from the infant's bedroom, but a log jam stood in the way of a more thorough effort to find little Sanoah Huestis, known as "Snowy."

"It just generates so many questions if they don't find them," Bach said. "I've never known anybody to die in a natural disaster. Do they issue death certificates?"

Search crews using dogs, bulldozers and their bare hands kept slogging through the mess of broken wood and mud, but authorities have acknowledged they might have to leave some victims buried.

Trying to recover every corpse would be impractical and dangerous.

The debris field is about a square mile and 30 to 40 feet deep in places, with a moon-like surface that includes quicksand-like muck, rain-slickened mud and ice. The terrain is difficult to navigate on foot and makes it treacherous or impossible to bring in heavy equipment.

To make matters worse, the pile is laced with other hazards that include fallen trees, propane and septic tanks, twisted vehicles and countless shards of shattered homes.

"We have to get on with our lives at some point," said Bach, who has spent the past several days in the area in hopes that searchers would find her brother, his wife, her 20-year-old great niece and the young girl's fiance.

The knowledge that some victims could be abandoned to the earth is difficult to accept.

"Realistically ...I honestly don't think they're going to find them alive," Bach said, crying. "But as a family, we're trying to figure out what to do if they find no bodies."

Bach spoke via phone about a wedding the family had planned for summer at the rural home that was destroyed. And how, she wondered, do you plan a funeral without a body? "We'll probably just have a memorial, and if they find the bodies eventually, then we'll deal with that then."

A death certificate, issued by the state, is legal proof that someone has died. Families often need them to settle their affairs. The authority to issue them starts with a county medical examiner or coroner, said Donn Moyer, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Health. If and when it appears there is no chance of finding someone, people can ask the county to start that process.

In previous mudslides, many victims were left where they perished. Mudslides killed thousands in Venezuela in 1999, and about 1,500 bodies were found. But the death toll was estimated at 5,000 to 30,000, so the government declared entire neighborhoods "memorial grounds."

Two Washington National Guard Blackhawk helicopters arrived at the site Wednesday to relieve sheriff's helicopter crews that had been working since Saturday.

The Blackhawks' sole mission is body removal, said Bill Quistorf, chief pilot for the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office.

Other survivors began to grow impatient Wednesday that they weren't allowed to return to the sites of their homes to search for their valuables and keepsakes.

"This isn't right. All of us who are still alive need to have access and find what we can of our lives," said Robin Youngblood, who said her son-in-law was turned away from the slide site.

As families grieved, officials were pressed again Wednesday about multiple reports from years ago that showed the potential for catastrophic landslides in the area.

Pennington said authorities took steps to mitigate risks and warn people of potential dangers, especially after a 2006 landslide in the area. But the sheer size of this disaster was overwhelming.

Geologist Dan Miller authored a government study 15 years ago warning that the Oso area was likely to experience a catastrophic mudslide.

"I was surprised that the permits were being given for building in the area," Miller said. "I thought it was a stupid thing to do and I still believe that's true."

A 2010 report commissioned by Snohomish County to comply with a federal law warned that neighborhoods along the Stillaguamish River were among the highest-risk areas, The Seattle Times has reported.

The hillside that collapsed Saturday outside of the community of Oso was one highlighted as particularly dangerous, said the report by California-based engineering and architecture firm Tetra Tech.

"For someone to say that this plan did not warn that this was a risk is a falsity," said report author and Tetra Tech program manager Rob Flaner.

A year after George Miller's 1999 report, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers warned in another study that lives would be at risk if the hillside collapsed, The Daily Herald of Everett reported.

Residents and county officials were focused on flood prevention, even after a 2006 landslide that did not reach any homes.

"We were just trying to stabilize the river so we could save the community from additional flooding," said Steve Thomsen, the county's public works director.

In fact, the area has long been known as the "Hazel Landslide" because of landslides over the past half-century. The last major one before Saturday's disaster was the one in 2006.

"We've done everything we could to protect them," Pennington said.

Predicting landslides is difficult, according to a study published by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2012. One challenge is estimating the probability of a slide in any particular place.

Homeowners insurance typically does not cover landslide damage, but customers can purchase such coverage, said Karl Newman, president of the NW Insurance Council, a trade group in the Northwest.

One of the authors of the USGS report, Jonathan Godt, a research scientist with the agency in Colorado, said landslides don't get that much attention because they often happen in places where they don't hit anything.

But with Americans building homes deeper into the wilderness, he said, "there are more people in the way."

© 2014 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.


Associated Press News Release
By DONNA GORDON BLANKINSHIP

ARLINGTON, Wash. (AP) -- Authorities say there are 108 names on the list of people who've been reported missing or unaccounted for in the weekend mudslide in Washington state.

Snohomish County emergency management director John Pennington says that doesn't mean there are 108 injuries or fatalities. But he says it's the consolidated list of reported missing from various sources that authorities are working from.

Pennington says the slide occurred on a Saturday morning, when more people were likely to be home.

At least eight people were killed in the 1-square-mile slide that hit in a rural area about 55 miles northeast of Seattle.

Several people also were critically injured, and about 30 homes were destroyed.


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