As searchers scrape and dig their way through a mountain of mud-caked landslide debris in the Stillaguamish River Valley of Washington State, the numbers in that community’s story of heartrending hope and unimaginable loss are beginning to provide some clarity and encouragement.
Officials report that the death toll has inched up to 18 with another 10 individuals found but not yet transported to the Snohomish County medical examiner’s office for identification.
But a week after a rain-soaked hillside thundered down across the river and state highway 530 in Oso, Washington, crushing and mixing everything in its path, the official number of missing and unaccounted for has dropped sharply: from 90 – fully half the community’s population – to 30.
That’s still a huge number for any tight-knit rural community where generations of neighbors, many of them related, know each other well. Three generations of one family are missing or confirmed dead. Another woman lost both her mother and her infant daughter. (The Seattle Times has information and photos of the victims here.)
But a week and a day into the exhausting and mind-numbing search – which has moved from rescue to recovery – the latest official tally of those yet to be accounted for may be seen as a bit of good news.
"We expected that number to drop in part due to a combination of finding people who registered as safe and well and cross-referencing the list with confirmed identities of victims at the ME's [medical examiner's] office," Jason Biermann, a program manager for the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management, said at a news conference Saturday evening.
Officials had said they expected the number of missing to fall as they worked to find people safe, checking lists that included partial reports and duplicates.
Underscoring the difficulty of identifying those killed in one of the deadliest landslides in US history, Mr. Biermann said crews are not always discovering complete remains.
“The slide hit with such force that often the rescuers are not recovering full, intact victims,” Biermann said.
Pastor Michael De Luca of the First Baptist Church in Darrington said he was not surprised to hear the lowered figure.
“I suspected all along that 90 was too many,” he told the Seattle Times.
He said firefighters and rescuers initially wanted to know about every person who might have been in the area of the mudslide, but many of the names submitted at the beginning have since been accounted for or crossed off the list, according to this report
“We found one guy living right next to the post office,” Pastor De Luca said. “He was quite surprised to find he’d been listed as missing or dead.”
While the search effort involving professional responders, local volunteers – many of them loggers putting the tools of their trade to a more somber use – National Guard troops, and specially-trained dogs will continue, officials acknowledge that some of the missing and presumed dead may never be found beneath many tons of mud and debris.
"That's going to be hallowed ground out there," Ron Brown, a Snohomish County official, told Reuters. At a community meeting Friday, John Farmer suggested that the area should not be rebuilt but turned into a memorial to those lost.
On Sunday, area churches were planning special services to remember the victims, support their families, and acknowledge the work of professionals and volunteers continuing the search.