DARRINGTON, Wash. — The search by heavy equipment, dogs and bare hands for victims from the deadly Washington mudslide was going “all the way to the dirt” as crews looked for anything to provide answers for family and friends a week after a small community was destroyed.
The number of those missing decreased from 90 to 30. Officials previously said they expected that figure to fall as they worked to find people safe and cross-referenced a “fluid” list that likely included partial reports and duplicates.
As the number of people unaccounted for went down, the fatalities went up.
The official death toll of victims identified by the medical examiner Saturday increased by one, to 18, said Jason Biermann, program manager at the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management.
Authorities recovered more than two dozen bodies — including one on Saturday — but they aren’t added to the official tally until a formal identification is made.
All work on the debris field halted briefly Saturday for a moment of silence to honor those lost. Gov. Jay Inslee asked people across Washington to pause at 10:37 a.m. The huge slide that destroyed a neighborhood in Oso north of Seattle struck at that time March 22.
“People all over stopped work — all searchers — in honor of that moment, so people we are searching for know we are serious,” Snohomish County Fire District 1 battalion chief Steve Mason said.
An American flag was ran up a tree and then down to half-staff at the debris site, he said.
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.
Finding and identifying all the victims could stretch on for a very long time, and authorities warned, ultimately, everyone might not be accounted for after one of the deadliest landslides in U.S. history.
Dogs working four-hour shifts have been the most useful tool, Harris said, but they’re getting hypothermic in the rain and muck.
“This is western Washington, folks,” Harris said. “These people are used to rain.”
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 river level to be sure nobody is trapped by rising water, he said.
At the debris site Saturday, Mason 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 mountainside community followed weeks of heavy rain.
Previous slides triggered by storms included one that killed 150 people in Virginia in the wake of Hurricane Camille in 1969 and another that killed 129 when rain from Tropical Storm Isabel loosened tons of mud that buried the Puerto Rican community of Mameyes in 1985.
A dam in San Francisquito Canyon, Calif., collapsed in 1928, causing an abutment to give way and killing 500 people, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey.
In Darrington, Mayor Dan Rankin 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,” Rankin said.
Baumann reported from Seattle. Associated Press photographer Elaine Thompson, writer Phuong Le in Seattle and researchers Judith Ausuebel, Jennifer Farrar and Susan James contributed to this report.