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Originally published March 28, 2014 at 4:03 PM | Page modified April 1, 2014 at 2:43 PM

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Toll remains 17: Why identifying victims seems to take so long

Officials in Snohomish County warn that the process of identifying victims of the mudslide will take a long time.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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An unexpected yell of excitement was heard Friday from a conference room off the lobby of the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office.

A volunteer assigned to call people who are believed to be missing, maybe dead, after last Saturday’s mudslide had just learned the person on the other end of the line was alive and well.

The volunteer, a retired San Diego police officer, said it was “the best news I’ve heard all day.”

He then hung up and dialed the next number on a long list.

As of Friday night, the county’s number of those missing and likely killed by the massive mudslide remained at 90. An additional 35 people, who might have been in the area at the time of the mudslide, are listed as “still unknown at this time,” officials said.

But the number of dead — a figure that has led to confusion — remained unclear Friday night, even as officials sought to clarify the process by which fatalities are confirmed and announced.

Gary Haakenson, the county’s executive director for public safety, said the number remains 17, unchanged from the morning despite a daylong search. He did indicate another victim had been found Friday afternoon but not included in the total of 17.

Haakenson, who for the first time gave the daily media briefing in Arlington, said the county from now on would release only the number of confirmed deaths and not discuss additional victims that had been located in the debris but not yet retrieved.

Previously, Fire Chief Travis Hots, of county Fire Districts 21/22, had released confirmed deaths as well as those considered “unconfirmed” — a number that could be as many as 10. That led to the confusion.

Haakenson said the county will consider a death confirmed only when a victim has been identified by the Medical Examiner’s Office, the family notified by a chaplain and the body released to a mortuary.

“The identification process has been very, very challenging,” Haakenson conceded.

Noticeably absent from Friday night’s briefing were Hots and John Pennington, the county’s head of emergency management.

“We sent them home to get some rest,” said County Executive John Lovick.

Haakenson also said the county would not make public the names of the missing. On Thursday, Pennington had indicated the county was trying to determine whether there were any legal reasons to prevent releasing the names in an attempt to weed out names of people.

Haakenson said that list would stay in the Medical Examiner’s Office.

Road construction

The most frenetic activity at the mudslide site Friday was road building.

Around the edge of the mudslide, workers with chain saws felled trees in the way and trucks dumped beds of gravel in the sodden earth, constructing an access road that will link the east and west sides of the mudslide.

Encircled by the noise and activity of that construction, atop the wide expanse of gray-brown earth created by the mudflow, small teams of workers carried on the search for human remains.

From a hillside nearby, the rescue workers seemed dwarfed by the scene around them. Each dug alone with a shovel or a pickax. Backhoes and excavators worked around them.

Yet Steve Mason, battalion commander with Snohomish County Fire District 1 and in charge of operations on the west side of the disaster site, was clearly happy with the road-building progress that he hopes will speed the rescue effort.

For a couple of days, a private contractor has been building the access road, connecting the Arlington and the Darrington sides of the slide, going around the blockage from the tons of debris that poured over state Highway 530.

Mason said the road will allow him to get supplies and equipment from one side to the other. Without it, the only way to cross is to fly or hike, which takes time. Maybe a quarter-mile remains to be finished. He expects the road to be completed by Saturday.

“This will make a huge difference for us,” Mason said.

In an emotional meeting in Darrington, the Snoqualmie Tribe announced it was donating $275,000, which includes $50,000 to the Cascade Valley Relief Foundation, $50,000 to the Red Cross and $25,000 to K-9 rescue efforts. Another $50,000 each will go to fire stations in Darrington, Oso and Arlington.

“All these family members, missing their loved ones. They need to get them home,” said tribal member Toby Strotz, praising the skills of firefighters and other search teams.

Protocol for remains

Responding to criticism that the Medical Examiner’s Office is not identifying victims in a timely manner, Haakenson told a Seattle Times reporter earlier in the day that the number of victims, the condition of the widespread search area and the notification of families must be taken into account.

Search crews slogging through the mudslide site have a strict protocol to follow, Haakenson said.

After locating a victim, searchers place the remains in a body bag, then note the GPS coordinates, Haakenson said. The coordinates are relayed to helicopter crews, who retrieve the body.

The body is then taken to a refrigerated National Guard truck located near the mudslide site. The truck has been making a daily trip to the Medical Examiner’s Office at Paine Field, generally at night.

Haakenson insisted the Medical Examiner’s Office is not overwhelmed. He said the office has sufficient resources, including extra staff from King and Skagit counties.

He said DNA and dental experts are also working in the office, and the National Guard has been assisting in processing the bodies.

He said that after bodies are brought in at night, autopsies are conducted the next day. Once a body is positively identified, a chaplain — one of 60 working with Snohomish County — will make a formal death announcement to the next of kin, Haakenson said.

Bodies are then sent to funeral homes and turned over to families.

Haakenson said the work is complicated, largely because authorities have had to rely heavily on dental records.

In a small number of cases, medical examiners have had to rely on DNA testing to make identification.

Families are not asked to visually identify victims, Haakenson said.

“It is not like TV,” he said.

Haakenson said the Medical Examiner’s Office is already working with a list of those believed killed in the mudslide. Relatives reporting their loved ones missing were asked by staff to provide identifying information — eye color, hair color, possible tattoos.

They were also asked to call the missing person’s dental office and have it compile dental records, Haakenson said.

Haakenson warned that the process could take some time, and that officials might not identify more than two or three victims each day.

No room for error

Hots, the fire chief and the incident commander, said “this is a sensitive situation for the people who have lost their loved ones.”

The sheer amount of forensic data takes longer to process, said Dr. Edward Kilbane, director of fatalities management for the National Disaster Medical System, part of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Kilbane said the paramount goal should not be speed but accuracy.

“You have to be 100 percent correct,” he said. “The whole process becomes exponentially more difficult with so many bodies.”

Brent Woodworth, who has led crisis-response teams for floods, earthquakes and other disasters in 50 countries, said identification can take longer depending on the condition of the bodies. Medical examiners, for instance, may have to track down surgery records for a victim with an artificial knee.

“It’s never a pleasant subject,” said Woodworth, president and chief executive of Global Crisis Service of Calabasas, Calif.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.

Seattle Times staff reporters Dominic Gates and Steve Miletich reported from Arlington. Hal Bernton reported from Darrington. Kyung M. Song reported from Washington, D.C.

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