21 people confirmed dead in Oso slide

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by KING 5 News and Associated Press

KING5.com

Posted on March 30, 2014 at 6:16 PM

Updated Sunday, Mar 30 at 10:16 PM

The latest:

  • The county medical examiner confirmed 21 fatalities. Six of those people were not yet identified.
  • The Department of Emergency Management said the list of missing was reduced to 30. The previous number was 90.
  • Four additional victims were found in the debris field.
  • Searchers are collecting photos and personal items at the debris site so they can be returned to families
  • Slide debris field is 300 acres; earlier projection was one square mile

DARRINGTON, Wash.  – The Snohomish County Medical Examiner said Sunday that 21 were dead in the Oso landslide, according to Jason Biermann, spokesman for the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management.

Four additional victims were found in the debris field by search crews Sunday but those people were not added to the official list of deceased, Biermann said. Of the 21 victims, six  were still not identified.

Earlier Sunday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee took an aerial tour of the slide site. Inslee said volunteers were able to get better access to the site because an access road has been completed.

Inslee said much of the search is focused on the perimeter of the slide area because many victims may have been pushed to the edge when the slide hit.

Mainly dry weather is forecast Monday through Wednesday in Western Washington, which should help recovery workers at the site of the mudslide who have been working in the rain.

Kris Reitmann, PIO for the east side of the slide operation, said the dog teams were taking a two-day break. Days of working in the cold and rain have taken their toll on the animals, and officials say the dogs can lose their sensing ability if overworked.
  
"The conditions on the slide field are difficult, so this is just a time to take care of the dogs," said Rietmann.

Volunteer collection crews continue to work the slide area.

"That is a very important thing to this community to collect personal belongings and mementos of families that have been impacted by the slide," said Reitmann.

Crews have completed a makeshift road that will link one side of the debris field to the other, significantly aiding the recovery operation.

Officials are making sure people have the right gear to stay safe in the rain and potentially hazardous materials.

Lt. Richard Burke with the Bellevue Fire Dept. said the Army has set up a decontamination process. Everybody goes through a complete washdown and "that material is cleaned and cleaned and cleaned so that none of this goes back, so we don't get crews sick. That's the last thing we want to do - we won't want to get anybody injured out here, we don't want to get them sick."

Late Saturday, authorities said the number of people believed missing decreased substantially, from 90 to 30.

Officials previously said they expected that figure to go down as they worked to find people safe and cross-referenced a "fluid" list that likely included partial reports and duplicates.

Related: Remembering those lost in the Oso landslide

Underscoring the difficulty of identifying those killed in one of the deadliest landslides in U.S. history, Biermann said crews are not always discovering complete remains.

"Rescuers are not always making full recoveries," he said. "Often, they are making partial recoveries.”

All work on the debris field halted briefly 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 time the huge slide struck on March 22.

"People all over stopped work -- all searchers -- in honor of that moment," said Snohomish County Fire District 1 battalion chief Steve Mason.

An American flag had been run up a tree and then down to half-staff at the debris site, he said.

Dan Rankin, mayor of the nearby logging town of Darrington, said the community had been "changed forevermore.”

"It's going to take a long time to heal, and the likelihood is we will probably never be whole," he said.

Angela Durant was on her way to work, driving on Highway 530, when the she saw the landslide. She was one of the first to call 911.

“I was late anyway but… I pulled up to the slide, and couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” she said.

She said some of her friends are among the missing, and now, like many others, she has turned to volunteering as a way to cope.

Finding and identifying all the victims could stretch on for a long time, and authorities have warned that not everyone may ultimately be accounted for.

Rescuers have given a cursory look at the entire debris field 55 miles northeast of Seattle, said Steve Harris, division supervisor for the eastern incident management team. They are now sifting through the rest of the fragments, looking for places where dogs should give extra attention. Only "a very small percentage" has received the more thorough examination, he said.

Commanders are making sure people have the right gear to stay safe in the rain and potentially hazardous materials, and they're keeping a close eye on the level of the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River to be sure nobody is trapped by rising water.

At the debris site Saturday, Mason, the battalion chief, said teams first do a hasty search of any wreckage of homes they find. If nothing is immediately discovered, they do a more detailed forensic search.

"We go all the way to the dirt," he said.

The huge wall of earth that crashed into the collection of homes followed weeks of heavy rain. A week later, only local volunteers are being allowed to help rescuers.

Burke said the search has become a tightknit effort.

"Everybody that's out here - this has become their family," he said. "The town of Oso and the people that have been lost, their family is huge now because every firefighter, every volunteer, is out here for one cause - it's to help support this community."

"I don't know when we'll be done. It's going to take years to clean this all up and put families back together, put this community back together, but I just can't say enough about the work that's being done out here."

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