Ted S. Warren / Pool / AP
Published Thursday, March 27, 2014 | 5:13 p.m.
Updated Thursday, March 27, 2014 | 11:30 p.m.
DARRINGTON, Wash. — Weary rescuers in hip waders pressed through rain and their own exhaustion Thursday, searching for more bodies and perhaps a miracle atop the pile of filth and debris that laid waste to a Washington town and killed at least 26 people.
Rescue and cadaver dogs occasionally led crews to a wrecked car or the ruins of a house containing a body. Teams then began removing the corpse, ignoring the muck that clogged their tools. As the victim was taken away, silence fell over the site.
The main goal now is to find more bodies and winnow the list of the 90 people who are still missing in the Saturday mudslide that buried the community of Oso, located about 55 miles northeast of Seattle.
The official death toll rose to 17 late Thursday as the Snohomish County medical examiner's office announced it had received the body of an infant recovered earlier in the day.
Authorities have acknowledged at least nine additional bodies have been located, but they warned the community a higher toll would be announced Friday morning.
"We understand there has been confusion over the reported number of fatalities," Snohomish County District 21 Fire Chief Travis Hots said Thursday night in a statement accompanying the increased official toll. "This has been a challenging process for all of us. The sadness here is that we know this number will only increase."
Hots told a Thursday evening news briefing, "I fully expect that number to go up here very, very soon."
At this point, narrowing the missing list means only one thing: digging. There are no more phone calls to relatives or door-to-door searches in hopes of locating people who just haven't checked in yet.
"At this time, we're not using any other type of methods other than the search and rescue," said Casey Broom of the Snohomish County emergency operations center.
Authorities have not released the names on the list of missing.
The more than 200 people working on the sludgy heap cling to hope that at least one survivor is waiting for them in some pocket of the pile, which is a square mile wide and 40 feet deep in places.
"My heart is telling me I'm not giving up yet," Hots said. "If we find just one more person alive, it's all worth it to me."
After six days of searching, people perhaps aren't the only ones showing signs of strain. Shane Barco's 3-year-old German shepherd has found bodies and body parts. But, Barco said, the dog gets frustrated when they don't bring anybody out alive.
Days of combing through what Barco called a blender of debris have exhausted the dog, leading Barco to stop the search for a while.
The medical examiner's office has so far formally identified five victims: Christina Jefferds, 45, of Arlington; Stephen A. Neal, 55, of Darrington; Linda L. McPherson, 69, of Arlington; Kaylee B. Spillers, 5, of Arlington and William E. Welsh, 66, of Arlington.
Family members have confirmed a handful of other fatalities to news organizations.
The body of Jefferds' granddaughter, 4-month-old Sanoah Huestis, was found Thursday, said Dale Petersen, the girl's great-uncle.
Petersen said he arrived on the scene to help look for survivors to find that work had stopped. A firefighter informed him and others that the infant had been found, Petersen said.
He said the news provides closure for the family.
"We spent a lot of time together," he said of the baby girl.
Five people injured by the mudslide remain in a Seattle hospital, including a 5-month-old boy in critical condition.
Besides the 90 missing, authorities are checking into 35 other people who may or may not have been in the area at the time of the slide.
If dozens more bodies are found or left entombed in the debris, the Oso mudslide could become one of Washington state's largest disasters. The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens killed 57 people, and a 1910 avalanche near Stevens Pass that struck two trains killed 96.
"We do know this could end up being the largest mass loss of Washingtonians," Gov. Jay Inslee said Thursday. "We're looking for miracles to occur."
The searchers walk on plywood pathways to keep from sinking into the sucking slurry. Their task was made more difficult Thursday by rain that saturated the sand, silt and clay that make up the debris pile.
"You'll fall in waist-deep in some areas, knee-deep in some areas," said Washington National Guard Senior Airman Charlotte Gibson. "We just keep pushing on, doing what we can as slowly and meticulously as we can to make sure we don't miss anything."
Despite the new rain, water levels on the eastern side of the slide area receded, uncovering flattened homes and crushed cars that previously were inaccessible.
Boats with dogs on board searched the areas, and crews inserted underwater cameras into vehicles to see if anybody was inside. Excavators pulled one car out of the muck, but it was unclear if they discovered anybody.
The moisture made the already treacherous surface even more unstable and raised concern about the safety of collapsed hillside above them.
"Right now there (is) no risk of additional slides, but we're watching the rain," said Steven Thomsen, the county's public works director. "If it starts to move, we'll pull the crews out, but we don't see that happening."
A University of Washington researcher now says there were two major slides on Saturday morning.
The bigger slide that hit Oso lasted more than two minutes, and was followed four minutes later by the second one, wrote Kate Allstadt on the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network blog.
Seismic signals also recorded more than a dozen smaller slides that continued for more than an hour.
"The big pulse was the main volume of material that broke down from the slope and tumbled down toward that valley," said Bill Steele, the seismology lab coordinator and spokesman for the seismic network. "Another big pulse followed that, breaking loose another section of unstable slope."
The seismic signals showed that the slide was not triggered by an earthquake, Allstadt said.