ARLINGTON, Wash. â€” As many as 90 people remain missing or unaccounted for in the search and rescue operation at the Oso mudslide, Snohomish County Emergency Management director John Pennington said Wednesday night.
“I do believe that it might drop a little bit more from that. We’re getting a clear picture of the number of individuals we need to focus on out there,” he said.
No new bodies were recovered during Wednesday’s search, Pennington said.
Eight more bodies have been found but not yet removed from the site, said Chief Steve Westlake, with the Snohomish County Emergency Management Operations Section. He expected the number of dead to be updated on Thursday.
The disaster scene here has been compared to the eruption of Mount St. Helens, which killed 57 people.
In a panoramic sense, that’s true. All about are mounds of gray sediment, as high as 15 feet, shaped like the ridges that the 1980 eruption left in the Toutle River valley.
But that was a largely unpopulated area. This community along the Stillaguamish River was a cozy enclave of a few dozen homes before a mile-square chunk of land overwhelmed it Saturday morning.
So far, 24 bodies have been found in the muck. Many more have yet to emerge.
While the 90 missing and unaccounted for is a high number, it is still far lower than the 176 authorities were giving on Tuesday.
Oso’s connection to the rest of Washington, Highway 530, was swamped by the mudslide. The westernmost 200 yards of the highway have been cleared. Still, the normal 20-minute drive through here between Arlington and Darrington is now a two-hour slog on a back-country access road.
On the hillside above Highway 530, a half-inch black cable has been strung through the brambles to restore phone and Internet service to Darrington. A creek below is flowing brown.
The sounds of helicopters and planes boom through the valley as crews are ferried between the Arlington and Darrington sides of the mudslide.
Rescue teams haven’t given up the hope of finding anyone alive, said Pennington. “We’re still in rescue-and-response mode.”
Nevertheless, no survivors have been found since rescues on Saturday.
“What has been the most help has been the dogs in finding people. And then our bare hands and shovels,” he said.
Wreckage is covered in gray muck. Backhoes scoop only partial loads and sometimes spread them on the ground, where several people look through carefully to make sure no victim or clue is overlooked.
“People are under logs, mixed in. It’s a slow process,” said Steve Mason, a fire battalion chief.
From a hillside, searchers can be seen walking on planks across mud mounds to reach wrecked houses.
The mood is somber. Fire Chief Travis Hots watches silently as a chaplain drapes a comforting arm around a searcher.
The feverish work at the site of the slide is mirrored by volunteers in nearby towns busy feeding, clothing and housing those displaced.
Now, “the world knows where Oso is,” Snohomish County Executive John Lovick said at a news briefing on Wednesday.
“They also now know that we are more than a small community. We are a large family.”
Contributing: Pool reporting by Mike Lindblom, The Seattle Times