Washington authorities on Wednesday reduced the number of people missing from a community wiped out by a mudslide to 90, as the families and friends of those still unaccounted for begin to confront the reality that some may never be found.
The official death toll remains at 16, with an additional eight bodies located but not recovered, Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington said. Authorities said they expected more bodies to be found on Thursday.
The number of missing had been fluctuating — at one point reaching as high as 220 — but authorities were able to verify that 140 people reported missing had been located, Pennington said. That left 90 people missing, plus 35 others who may or may not have been in the area at the time of the slide.
The revised numbers come at the end of a rain-soaked fifth day of searching for survivors in the small community of Oso, northeast of Seattle. But as time passes and the death toll continues to rise, the chances grow increasingly dim of finding people alive amid the debris.
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With little hope to cling to, family members of the missing are beginning to realize their loved ones may remain entombed forever inside a mountain of mud that is believed to have claimed more than 20 lives.
Becky Bach watches and waits, hoping that search crews find her brother and three other relatives who are missing in Washington state's deadly mudslide.
Doug Massingale waits too, for word about his 4-month-old granddaughter. Searchers were able to identify carpet from the infant's bedroom, but a log jam stood in the way of a more thorough effort to find little Sanoah Huestis, known as "Snowy."
"It just generates so many questions if they don't find them," Bach said. "I've never known anybody to die in a natural disaster. Do they issue death certificates?"
Search crews using dogs, bulldozers and their bare hands kept slogging through the mess of broken wood and mud, but authorities have acknowledged they might have to leave some victims buried.
Trying to recover every corpse would be impractical and dangerous.
The debris field is about 2.6 square kilometres and 9 to 12 metres deep in places, with a moon-like surface that includes quicksand-like muck, rain-slickened mud and ice.
The terrain is difficult to navigate on foot and makes it treacherous or impossible to bring in heavy equipment.
Debris field laced with hazards
To make matters worse, the pile is laced with other hazards that include fallen trees, propane and septic tanks, twisted vehicles and countless shards of shattered homes.
"We have to get on with our lives at some point," said Bach, who has spent the past several days in the area in hopes that searchers would find her brother, his wife, her 20-year-old great niece and the young girl's fiance.
The knowledge that some victims could be abandoned to the earth is difficult to accept.
"Realistically ...I honestly don't think they're going to find them alive," Bach said, crying. "But as a family, we're trying to figure out what to do if they find no bodies."
Bach spoke via phone about a wedding the family had planned for summer at the rural home that was destroyed. And how, she wondered, do you plan a funeral without a body? "We'll probably just have a memorial, and if they find the bodies eventually, then we'll deal with that then."
A death certificate, issued by the state, is legal proof that someone has died. Families often need them to settle their affairs. The authority to issue them starts with a county medical examiner or coroner, said Donn Moyer, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Health. If and when it appears there is no chance of finding someone, people can ask the county to start that process.
In previous mudslides, many victims were left where they perished. Mudslides killed thousands in Venezuela in 1999, and about 1,500 bodies were found. But the death toll was estimated at 5,000 to 30,000, so the government declared entire neighbourhoods "memorial grounds."
Two Washington National Guard Blackhawk helicopters arrived at the site Wednesday to relieve sheriff's helicopter crews that had been working since Saturday.
The Blackhawks' sole mission is body removal, said Bill Quistorf, chief pilot for the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office.
Other survivors began to grow impatient Wednesday that they weren't allowed to return to the sites of their homes to search for their valuables and keepsakes.
"This isn't right. All of us who are still alive need to have access and find what we can of our lives," said Robin Youngblood, who said her son-in-law was turned away from the slide site.
As families grieved, officials were pressed again Wednesday about multiple reports from years ago that showed the potential for catastrophic landslides in the area.
Pennington said authorities took steps to mitigate risks and warn people of potential dangers, especially after a 2006 landslide in the area. But the sheer size of this disaster was overwhelming.