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Hope of finding survivors in Washington mudslide fades away

| Saturday, March 29, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
REUTERS
Washington National Guard rescue workers continue their search through the mud and wreckage left behind by the March 22, 2014, mudslide as they look for signs of missing persons in the west side of the Oso, Washington March 28, 2014.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Daja Durkacs (from left), Briana Elias, Crystal Martincic and Tiffany Hinerman — who went to high school with missing mudslide victim Billy Spillers — grieve at a candlelight vigil on Friday in Chartiers-Houston's football field. Spillers, 30, a 2001 graduate of Chartiers-Houston, and three of his four children are among those missing in the mudslide on March 22, 2014, in the state of Washington.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Former high school classmates of Billy Spillers and others gather for a candlelight vigil at the Chartiers-Houston football field on March 29, 2014. Spillers, 30, a 2001 graduate of Chartiers-Houston, and three of his four children are among those missing in the mudslide on March 22, 2014, in the state of Washington.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Katie Jones (left), of Washington, a former high school classmate of Billy Spillers, joins others during a candlelight vigil at the Chartiers-Houston football field on March 29, 2014. Spillers, 30, a 2001 graduate of Chartiers-Houston, and three of his four children are among those missing in the mudslide on March 22, 2014, in the state of Washington.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Crystal Martincic, a former high school classmate of Billy Spillers, grieves during a candlelight vigil at the Chartiers-Houston football field on March 29, 2014. Spillers, 30, a 2001 graduate of Chartiers-Houston, and three of his four children are among those missing in the mudslide on March 22, 2014, in the state of Washington.

ARLINGTON, Wash. — A mountainside community waited in anguish on Friday to learn the full scope of the Washington state mudslide as authorities worked to identify remains and warned that they were unlikely to find anyone alive nearly a week after the disaster.

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 will never turn up.

“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.”

Authorities delayed an announcement that they said would substantially raise the death toll to allow the Snohomish County medical examiner's office to continue with identification efforts.

That job, along with the work of the exhausted searchers, was complicated by the sheer magnitude of the devastation from the slide on March 22. Tons of earth and ambulance-sized boulders of clay smashed everything in their path, leaving unrecognizable remnants in their wake.

“There's a process that we have in place, and I don't want to get into too many details of that,” Snohomish County District 21 fire Chief Travis Hots said. “It's not as simple as saying this is the number of people that we have that we have recovered.”

The fire chief said he expected to receive an update from the medical examiner's office by Friday evening.

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.

There were also signs of resilience. Handmade signs have appeared that read “Oso strong” and “530 pride” in reference to the stricken community and state Highway 530 that runs through it.

Authorities have acknowledged the deaths of at least 25 people — with 17 bodies recovered. Reports of more bodies being found have trickled in from relatives and workers on the scene.

Searchers are working from a list of 90 missing people, which equates to about half of the population of Oso, a North Cascades foothills community about 55 miles northeast of Seattle.

That list has not been made public, but officials have said it includes not just residents who may have been in their homes but others thought to be in the area or traveling on the highway when the slide struck.

Authorities have all but eliminated the possibility that some people on the list may have been out of the area and simply have not checked in.

And they warned that the chance of finding anyone alive amid the tons of silt and mud was slim.

“I would say there's always some hope, but ...” Tom Miner said on Thursday, trailing off before finishing his thought. He is an urban search-and-rescue leader for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Besides the 90 missing, authorities are checking on 35 people who may or may not have been in the area at the time of the slide.

The mudslide could go down as one of Washington's worst disasters, along with the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens that killed 57 people and a 1910 avalanche near Stevens Pass that swept away two trains and killed 96.

Rescuers, military personnel, volunteers and search dogs pressed on in Washington state, driven by the hope of finding at least one survivor. But the operation had changed, said Snohomish County fire battalion Commander Steve Mason.

“It started with hasty searching,” he said. Now “we want to be more methodical.”

Crews that had worked for days in the rain and mud were getting some relief as replacements arrived. The Colorado National Guard sent 16 members of its fatality search-and-recovery team to Washington.

A new crew of volunteer diggers showed up on Friday and marched single file toward the debris pile.

“There are people down here digging for their loved ones,” Mason said.

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