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Originally published March 27, 2014 at 4:53 PM | Page modified March 28, 2014 at 12:31 PM

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Painful wait drags on; fire chief says death toll soon will rise

A small army scoured the mudslide zone on Thursday, and the head of a federal rescue team made comparisons to the World Trade Center, Hurricane Katrina or Oklahoma City bombing. Officials warned that the death toll is about to rise substantially.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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ARLINGTON — Another day of sifting through the wreckage trapped beneath the deadly Snohomish County mudslide increased the number of confirmed victims but failed to provide answers for the nearly 100 families anxious for word of missing loved ones.

By the end of Thursday, the number of missing — 90 — remained unchanged from Wednesday while the list of recovered bodies increased by one despite a search involving 200 members of local, state and federal teams, according to the head of the county’s Department of Emergency Management.

Seventeen bodies have been recovered from the square-mile area covered by mud, the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office said Thursday night. Officials also released the names of three adults and one child killed in Saturday’s mudslide.

John Pennington, emergency-management director, said authorities are examining whether there are any legal impediments to releasing the names of the missing.

Publication of the names could help determine whether some should not be on the list, he said.

“The way it comes to me is, the number is 90 today, and I’m asking the question: ‘Are we able to get you guys to help us solve that puzzle of where some of these individuals are?’ ” said Pennington during an evening media briefing in Arlington. “That’s the next step for me, beginning tomorrow. I might fail miserably at that. There may be an attorney ... or a statute that just says, ‘Are you crazy? You can’t do that.’ ”

When a reporter asked whether some families are reluctant to have the names publicly released, Pennington said, “I don’t have that answer.”

A determination may have to come from the state Attorney General’s Office. A call to the office was not immediately returned Thursday evening.

An official with the King County Prosecutor’s Office, who asked not to be named because his office isn’t involved in the search, said he isn’t aware of any statutes that would prevent authorities from releasing the names of people believed to be missing in a natural disaster or other emergency.

He cited cases in which the names of missing or kidnapped children are released.

During a news briefing Friday morning, Fire Chief Travis Hots, of Snohomish County Fire Districts 21/22, said the number of dead had not changed. However, he said the number could be revised by the next briefing at 6 p.m. Friday.

He said the number has not changed because of a systematic process under which the medical examiner is identifying bodies and releasing names.

“This is a sensitive situation for the people who have lost their loved ones,” Hots said.

Incident spokesman Brian McMahan said Thursday night in Darrington that more bodies had been recovered during the day’s search.

The medical examiner’s office released the names of four more victims of the mudslide, including Stephen A. Neal, 55, of Darrington, and William E. Welsh, 66, of Arlington.

Neal and Welsh were doing plumbing work at the home of Amanda Lennick in the Steelhead Drive neighborhood at the time of the mudslide. Lennick, 31, remains missing.

Also identified was Linda L. McPherson, 69, of Arlington, a longtime librarian and school-board member in Darrington.

The fourth victim was identified as Kaylee B. Spillers, 5. Her father, 2-year-old sister and 13-year-old stepbrother remain missing.

On Wednesday, the medical examiner’s office identified Christina Jefferds, 45, as a slide victim.

In addition to those officially identified by the medical examiner’s office, family members have confirmed the deaths of several other victims.

Search crews Thursday sifted through new parts of mudslide wreckage after receding water levels on the east side of the slide area uncovered debris that previously had been inaccessible.

Floodwaters from the slide-blocked North Fork of the Stillaguamish River had previously made it difficult for crews to spot the pancaked homes and crushed cars they found Thursday.

“This side is totally different from the other,” said Jamal Beckham of the Monroe Fire Department before heading back into the wreckage sitting on top of Highway 530. “There’s huge floating pieces of debris we’re poking around.”

In addition to exposing new debris, Beckham said the lower water levels have made it easier for crews to lift up cars or insert underwater cameras to see if anyone is inside.

Elaine and Don Young, a couple whose house remains unscathed at the southeastern edge of the mudslide, continued their sixth day assisting search crews and volunteers with whatever they need. A volunteer command post they created on a ridge overlooking a swamp of debris holds water, food and fuel.

“I just support them and take down anything they need — could be more diesel, battery chargers, saws,” said Elaine Young, before hopping onto a muddy ATV heading back into the muck.

Of all the descriptions offered of the debris field, Washington National Guard Capt. Brad Sanders’ was perhaps the most apt:

“So if you could imagine houses, trees and a bunch of mud put in a blender and run through a bit and dumped back on the ground, that’s what it is,” said Sanders, a member of a team of 15 National Guardsmen assisting the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office in the search for bodies.

Their assignment is to slowly walk through the debris field, sift through the wreckage and look for signs of a victim. Once they find remains, they mark the location using GPS and alert incident commanders, who can call in search dogs and additional teams.

It’s slow, methodical and taxing work, according to Sanders.

The National Guard is part of a small army of people scouring the slide zone Thursday under what have been described as the worst of conditions.

In ranks of major disasters

The mudslide near the rural community of Oso is not as big as disasters such as the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, Hurricane Katrina or the 1995 bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, but it’s “every bit as complex,” said Tom Minor, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) urban-search team that’s helping find the victims.

Minor, who took part in search-and-rescue operations in each of those incidents, said the number of people missing in the mudslide is “quite high.” It’s also unlikely that all the bodies will be recovered by emergency responders, he said.

“I’ve been doing that for 30 years,” he said. “There’s no 100 percent” recovery rate.

Responders are operating in “rescue” mode, under the assumption that they can still find survivors. But “discussions are being had” about when the operation should switch to “recovery” mode, Minor said.

Responders also help family members of the victims deal with the loss of their loved ones. Immediate family members are being taken to the scene of the disaster.

“It was not a huge number,” Minor said. It “gives them a better understanding of the scope, the magnitude” of the disaster and the tremendous effort of the recovery.

Hots, the fire chief, said search dogs are struggling to find bodies because the muck is so thick. A scent does not always rise in a straight line from a victim’s location and may come up to 40 feet away, Hots said.

More than 200 people, including volunteers, are working on the rescue and recovery effort. Some crew members are starting to get tired, so, “We’re going to start cycling in new crews that are fresh.”

Watching the hillside

Steve Thomsen, public-works director for Snohomish County, said this morning that an analysis by several groups does not indicate a risk of another slide, but if the rain increases that risk, crews will be pulled back for their safety.

“The slide is stable right now,” Thomsen said. He said geologists from across the nation and Canada are monitoring the land.

Expected rain, however, may make operations difficult on areas that had dried up in past days, Hots added.

The U.S. Geological Survey confirmed that a tiny quake 12 days before Saturday’s Oso mudslide could not have triggered the disaster.

“Seismograph readings show no indication of an earthquake in association with the landslide,” said a statement from the agency.

However, recordings from the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network based at the University of Washington show that the slide caused local ground shaking for over an hour.

Pennington, the emergency-management head, had raised the possibility at a news conference Tuesday morning that the mudslide may have been triggered by a tiny quake near the slide site.

The quake had a magnitude of 1.1.

Seattle Times staff reporters Sandi Doughton and Jennifer Sullivan reported from Seattle. Reporter Erik Lacitis reported from Darrington.

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