Sunday 28 December 2014

Mudslide death toll rises to 21

Published 31/03/2014 | 04:42

A worker cuts a tree with a chainsaw next to a PV -  'possible victim' - marking in the mudslide debris field (AP)
A worker cuts a tree with a chainsaw next to a PV - 'possible victim' - marking in the mudslide debris field (AP)

The number of people confirmed dead from the mudslide in Washington state has increased from 18 to 21.

Jason Biermann of Snohomish County Emergency Management said 15 victims were identified by the Snohomish County medical examiner and six have yet to be identified.

Another four bodies were found in the debris field yesterday and about 30 people remain missing after the massive mudslide in the mountainside community of Oso on March 22.

Families coping with the loss of friends and neighbours sought comfort in church services yesterday as crews worked to recover more victims from the soggy pile of mud that buried Oso more than a week ago.

"I can only compare it to a hot hearty meal after a very cold day," Slava Botamanenko, of Darrington, said of the services.

All week, people have stopped in to pray at the Glad Tidings Assembly of God on the edge of town, senior pastor Les Hagen said. "At a time like this, everybody knows they've got to have God's help," he said.

Meanwhile rescue crews said many of the dogs that have been essential in the search for victims would be taking take a two-day break. Days of sniffing through cold, soupy mud and nearly nonstop rain have taken their toll on the animals and dogs can lose their sensing ability if they work too long.

"The conditions on the slide field are difficult, so this is just a time to take care of the dogs," said Kris Rietmann, lead spokeswoman for the team working on the eastern portion of the slide.

Dogs from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, more recent arrivals on the scene, will continue working.

Engineers are watching for any material sloughing off the landslide area, making sure that a weekend of torrential rainfall does not displace more land.

Underscoring the difficulty of identifying those killed in one of the deadliest landslides in US history, Mr Biermann said crews were not always discovering complete remains.

This weekend they completed a makeshift road that will link one side of the debris field to the other, significantly easing the recovery operation. They have also been working to clear mud and debris from the highway, leaving piles of muck, splintered wood and housing insulation on the sides of the road.

Searchers have had to contend with treacherous conditions and t he area has septic tanks, petrol, propane tanks and other hazards. When rescuers and search dogs leave, they are hosed off by hazardous materials crews stationed at the edges of the debris field.

The slide dammed up the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River, causing water to pool up on the east side. The river cut a new channel through the mud, but torrential weekend rainfall has raised the water level by nearly 1ft.

In at least one place, the water level has risen so high it has covered areas that have already been searched .

But rescuers should get some relief soon. Mainly dry weather is forecast today until Wednesday in Western Washington.

The size of the debris field is also smaller than initially thought. After further scientific review and analysis, geologists have determined that it is about 300 acres, just under half the size of the earlier projected square mile.

Press Association

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