(Recasts with more remains found; officials say some bodies may
never be recovered)
By Jonathan Kaminsky
DARRINGTON, Wash., March 26 Search teams picked
through mud-caked debris for a fifth day on Wednesday looking
for scores of people still missing in a deadly Washington state
landslide, as officials reported finding more bodies while
acknowledging that some victims' remains may never be recovered.
The known death toll stood at 24, with as many as 176 people
still unaccounted for near the rural town of Oso, where a
rain-soaked hillside collapsed on Saturday and cascaded over a
river and a road, engulfing dozens of homes on the opposite
The latest tally did not include an unspecified number of
bodies that state police spokesman Bob Calkins said had been
found on Wednesday. He declined to give further details.
Earlier in the day, local emergency management officials
sought to fend off criticism of property development that was
permitted just across the river from the caved-in slope after
previous landslides in the area.
As hope faded that any survivors might be plucked from the
muck and debris that blanketed an area covering about one square
mile (2.6 square km), residents of the stricken community and
nearby towns braced for an expected rise in the casualty count.
"My son's best friend is out there, missing," said John
Pugh, 47, a National Guardsman who lives in the neighboring
village of Darrington. "My daughter's maid of honor's parents
are missing. It's raw. And it will be for a long time."
Asked whether he expected the death toll to rise
significantly, Governor Jay Inslee told CNN: "Yes, I don't think
anyone can reach any other conclusion.
"It's been very sad that we have not been able to find
anyone living now for probably 36 or 48 hours," he said. "The
most discouraging thing is we were hopeful that we would find
folks who might be protected by a car or a structure, but the
force of this landslide just defies imagination."
About 200 search personnel, many wearing rain gear and hard
hats, painstakingly combed through the disaster zone under
cloudy skies on Wednesday, taking advantage of a break from
Tuesday's rain showers to hasten their search for more victims.
Snohomish County Battalion Fire Chief Steve Mason, directing
part of the operation, said teams were making slow but steady
progress in locating additional remains.
"There are finds going on continually. They are finding
people now," he told reporters visiting the search site. "People
are under logs, mixed in. It's a slow process."
But Jan McClelland, a volunteer firefighter from Darrington
who was among the first to arrive at the scene and has spent
long days digging through the muck since then, conceded it was
possible some bodies may end up forever entombed at the site.
"I'm fearful we won't find everyone," she said. "That's the
reality of it."
NO HUMAN HEAT SOURCES DETECTED
Bill Quistorf, the chief pilot for the county sheriff's
office, recounted that helicopter crews conducting low-altitude
scans of the disaster zone with infrared equipment found no
human heat sources in the hours after the slide.
"We located one dog in the bushes, and that was it," he
said, also acknowledging that some remains may never be
At the same time, authorities sought to whittle down their
list of unaccounted-for individuals, with missing-persons
detectives from the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office working to
resolve likely redundancies on a roster of people whose fate
County officials also started to address criticism for
allowing new home construction on parts of the disaster site
after a 2006 landslide in the same vicinity, which followed
numerous reports detailing the risks of slides dating back to
A 1999 study by geologist Daniel Miller for the U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers had warned of the potential for a "large
catastrophic failure" in the area, about 55 miles (90 km)
northeast of Seattle.
"There's definitely a blame-game going on," Miller told
Reuters. "I've always thought it's inappropriate to allow
development in flood plains, in areas at risk of landslides, in
part because of the danger to human life and also in part
because when something happens, even if no one is hurt, public
agencies end up coming in to make repairs," he said.
The county's emergency management director, John Pennington,
told reporters local authorities had spent millions of dollars
on work to reduce landslide risks in the area after the 2006
He suggested that while officials and residents were aware
of vulnerability to unstable hill slopes, Saturday's tragedy
came out of the blue.
"We really did a great job of mitigating the potential for
smaller slides to come in and impact the community," Pennington
said. "So from 2006 to this point, the community did feel safe;
they fully understood the risks."
But he also said: "People knew that this is a
landslide-prone area. Sometimes big events just happen.
Sometimes large events that nobody sees happen. And this event
happened, and I want to find out why. I don't have those answers
Search and rescue operations tapered off overnight but
ramped up to full strength again at first light on Wednesday.
Searchers used dogs to pinpoint possible locations of victims,
as well as electronic equipment such as listening devices and
cameras capable of probing voids in the debris.
"We're not backing off. We're still going at this with all
eight cylinders to get everyone out there who is unaccounted
for," local fire chief Travis Hots said.
The presumed tally of dead rose on Tuesday night from 14 to
24 when county officials reported that search crews laboring in
a steady drizzle had recovered two more bodies from the disaster
zone and located the remains of eight additional victims.
Eight people were injured but survived the slide, including
a 22-week-old baby rescued with his mother and listed in
critical condition but improving. The mother and three other
survivors also remained hospitalized.
The slide already ranks as one of the worst in the United
States. In 1969, 150 people were killed in landslides and floods
in Virginia, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
(Additional reporting by Bill Rigby in Seattle, Bryan Cohen in
Arlington, Washington, and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing
by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cythia Johnston, Dan Grebler and