Mudslide crews face daunting task in body search

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Mudslide crews face daunting task in body search
Marine One helicopter, carrying President Barack Obama, takes an aerial tour of Oso, Wash., Tuesday, April 22, 2014, above the site of the deadly mudslide that struck the community in March. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Marine One, carrying President Barack Obama, takes an aerial tour of Oso, Wash., Tuesday, April 22, 2014, the site of the deadly mudslide that struck the community in March. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, Pool)
President Barack Obama walks from the Marine One helicopter with Col. Preston Williamson, vice commander, 89th Airlift Wing, Andrews Air Force Base, Md.,to board of Air Force One, Tuesday, April 22, 2014, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md, en route to Oso, Wash., the site of the deadly mudslide that struck the community. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President Barack Obama boards Air Force One, Tuesday, April 22, 2014, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md, en route to Oso, Wash., the site of the deadly mudslide that struck the community. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Brande Taylor, left, and her partner Matt Ingison wave flags and take photos as President Barack Obama's motorcade drives past Tuesday, April 22, 2014, in Oso, Wash. Obama was visiting the area about an hour northeast of Seattle to survey damage from a recent mudslide nearby that killed more than three dozen people. The deadly March 22 mudslide killed at least 41 people and buried dozens of homes. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
A flag sticks out of a hole in a demolished home near where a deadly mudslide from the hill behind that happened several days earlier ended, Tuesday, March 25, 2014, in Arlington, Wash. At least 14 people were killed in the 1-square-mile slide that hit in a rural area about 55 miles northeast of Seattle on Saturday. Several people also were critically injured, and homes were destroyed. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
The remains of a house and of a boat lie with other debris following a deadly mudslide, Tuesday, March 25, 2014, in Oso, Wash. At least 14 people were killed in the 1-square-mile slide that hit in a rural area about 55 miles northeast of Seattle on Saturday. Several people also were critically injured, and homes were destroyed. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Teresa Welter cries as she holds a candle Tuesday, March 25, 2014, at a candlelight vigil in Arlington, Wash., for the victims of a massive mudslide that struck the nearby community of Oso, Wash., on Saturday, killing at least 16 people and leaving dozens missing. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
ARLINGTON, WA - MARCH 25: Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots speaks to the media during a news conference on March 25, 2014 in Arlington, Washington. A massive mudslide on March 22 in nearby Oso, Washington killed at least sixteen and left many missing. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)
OSO, WA - MARCH 25: Crews work on Washington State Route 530 to clear debris from a mudslide on March 25, 2014 in Oso, Washington. A massive mudslide on March 22 has killed at least fourteen and left scores missing. (Photo by Ted S. Warren-Pool/Getty Images)
OSO, WA - MARCH 25: Crews work on Washington State Route 530 to clear debris from a mudslide on March 25, 2014 in Oso, Washington. A massive mudslide on March 22 has killed at least fourteen and left scores missing. (Photo by Ted S. Warren-Pool/Getty Images)
Volunteers with chainsaws march down a rugged path toward the scene of a deadly mudslide that hit Saturday, Tuesday, March 25, 2014, in Arlington, Wash. At least 14 people were killed in the 1-square-mile slide that hit in a rural area about 55 miles northeast of Seattle. Several people also were critically injured, and homes were destroyed. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
OSO, WA - MARCH 25: Elaine Young holds a Bible and photographs found in the debris of a mudslide near her home on March 25, 2014 in Oso, Washington. A massive mudslide on March 22 has killed at least fourteen and left many missing. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)
OSA, WASHINGTON, USA - JULY 25, 2010: This is DigitalGlobe satellite imagery of the Osa, Washington MUDSLIDE area before the March 2014 tragedy. Imagery collected on July 25, 2010. (Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images)
SNOHOMISH COUNTY, WASHINGTON - MARCH 23: In this handout from Washington State Dept of Transportation, an aerial view of a breach where water from the Stillaguamish River begins to move through the dam created March 23, 2014 between Darrington and Arlington, Washington. Eight people have been confirmed dead and at least 18 others are still missing after a massive mudslide leveled homes and blocked a river and a road. (Photo by Washington State Dept of Transportation via Getty Images)
SNOHOMISH COUNTY, WASHINGTON - MARCH 23: In this handout from Washington State Dept of Transportation, an aerial view of the hill that originated the mudslide March 23, 2014 between Darrington and Arlington, Washington. Eight people have been confirmed dead and at least 18 others are still missing after a massive mudslide leveled homes and blocked a river and a road. (Photo by Washington State Dept of Transportation via Getty Images)
SNOHOMISH COUNTY, WASHINGTON - MARCH 23: In this handout from Washington State Dept of Transportation, an aerial view of a breach where water from the Stillaguamish River begins to move through the dam created March 23, 2014 between Darrington and Arlington, Washington. Eight people have been confirmed dead and at least 18 others are still missing after a massive mudslide leveled homes and blocked a river and a road. (Photo by Washington State Dept of Transportation via Getty Images)
DARRINGTON, WA - MARCH 23: Larry Taylor prepares to spend the night at a temporary Red Cross shelter at the Darrington Community Center in Darrington, Washington on Sunday, March 23, 2014. A massive mudslide in Oso, Washington killed at least eight and left many missing, while also blocking the waters of the Stillaguamish River and flooding Taylor's home. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)
DARRINGTON, WA - MARCH 23: Kristopher Langton shares a moment with his son, Kristian Langton (5 months), at a temporary Red Cross shelter at the Darrington Community Center in Darrington, Washington on Sunday, March 23, 2014. A massive mudslide in Oso, Washington killed at least eight and left many missing, and Kristopher Langton was one of the first to arrive and offer aid. Against the wishes of authorities, Langton says he traveled more than a mile across the entire mudslide, wading through debris and mud that resembled quicksand to help rescue four adults and an infant. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, WA - MARCH 23: (NO SALES) A house sits destroyed in the mud on Highway 530 next to mile marker 37 on March 23, 2014 near Arlington, Washington. Four people have been confirmed dead and at least 18 others are still missing after a massive mudslide in Oso, Washington. (Photo by Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times-Pool/Getty Images)
SNOHOMISH COUNTY, WASHINGTON - MARCH 22: In this handout from Washington State Dept of Transportation, an aerial view of the hill that originated the mudslide, the Stillaguamish River and SR 530 March 22, 2014 between Darrington and Arlington, Washington. Eight people have been confirmed dead and at least 18 others are still missing after a massive mudslide leveled homes and blocked a river and a road. (Photo by Washington State Dept of Transportation via Getty Images)
SNOHOMISH COUNTY, WASHINGTON - MARCH 22: In this handout from the Washington State Patrol, people stand near a debris from a house that was hit by a mudslide on Highway 530 March 22, 2014 in Snohomish County, Washington. According to reports, 18 people are still missing after a mudslide killed three and injured another eight. The mudslide is said to measure a square mile and 15 feet deep in places. (Photo by Washington State Patrol via Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, WA - MARCH 23: (NO SALES) A house sits destroyed in the mud on Highway 530 next to mile marker 37 on March 23, 2014 near Arlington, Washington. Four people have been confirmed dead and at least 18 others are still missing after a massive mudslide in Oso, Washington. (Photo by Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times-Pool/Getty Images)
The orange X on a house, destroyed in the mud, indicates it has been searched for people on Highway 530, Sunday, March 23, 2014 the day after a giant landslide occurred near Oso, Wash. Rescue crews searched into the night for survivors from a massive mudslide that killed at least three people, after hearing voices from the debris field pleading for help. (AP Photo/The Seattle Times, Lindsey Wasson, Pool)
Map locates mudslide in Snohomish County, Wash.
Snohomish County Sheriff officers monitor the scene a short ways up the road from the mudslide at mile 37 on Highway 530 on Sunday, March 23, 2014, the day after a giant landslide occurred near mile marker 37 near Oso, Washington. At least six homes have been washed away, with three people reported dead so far and at least eighteen missing. The nearby Stillaguamish River has been dammed up by 15-20 feet of debris as a result, creating more flooding concerns, as reported by KING 5 via the state hydrologist. (AP Photo/The Seattle Times, Lindsey Wasson, Pool)
A house is seen destroyed in the mud on Highway 530 next to mile marker 37 on Sunday, March 23, 2014, the day after a giant landslide occurred near mile marker 37 near Oso, Washington. At least six homes have been washed away, with three people reported dead so far and at least eighteen missing. The nearby Stillaguamish River has been dammed up by 15-20 feet of debris as a result, creating more flooding concerns, as reported by KING 5 via the state hydrologist. (AP Photo/The Seattle Times, Lindsey Wasson, Pool)
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BY BRIAN SKOLOFF AND LISA BAUMANN
ASSOCIATED PRESS

DARRINGTON, Wash. (AP) -- Firefighter Jeff McClelland uncovered a body on the moon-like surface that blankets what used to be the community of Oso. Suddenly, he realized the dead man's son and brother were among the volunteers scouring the debris field.

The relatives sat beside the body as it was zipped into a bag. McClelland found himself overcome with tears.

The discovery served as a touching reminder of the deeply emotional work that is playing out in this tight-knit town as rescuers like McClelland search for bodies in the muck and devastation left behind by a massive mudslide, hoping to at least bring some closure to the relatives and friends of those who have not been found.

"I can go home and ... eat some food, hug my wife, come in and hug my friends the next morning and say, `Let's go again. We've got something to do. We've got a job to do, so let's go do it,'" McClelland said, recalling his thoughts on Wednesday.

Scores of people once thought missing in the mudslide have turned up safe, but that provided little relief to rescuers like McClelland who are tasked with bringing closure to the relatives and friends of those who have not been found.

The death toll is expected to rise considerably within the next two days as the Snohomish County Medical Examiner's Office catches up with the recovery effort, Snohomish County District 21 Fire Chief Travis Hots said Thursday.

Sixteen bodies have been recovered, but officials say at least nine more had been found as of Wednesday night. The medical examiner's office so far has identified one victim, 45-year-old Christina Jefferds.

"In the next 24 to 48 hours, as the medical examiner catches up with their work, you're going to see these numbers increase substantially," Hots said.

There are 90 people confirmed missing, with another 35 who authorities are unsure were in the area when a hillside collapsed Saturday morning 55 miles northeast of Seattle.

Hope of a miracle discovery of a survivor has faded as the search entered its sixth day Thursday, but Hots said crews are going to exhaust all options in the effort to find somebody alive in the devastation.

"My heart is telling me I'm not giving up yet," he said. "If we find just one more person alive, it's all worth it to me."

Becky Bach watches and waits, hoping that search crews find her brother, his wife, her 20-year-old great-niece and the young girl's fiance.

"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."

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's stressful to think about," he said. "A little baby that hasn't gotten a start yet in life. It's too much."

Trying to recover every corpse would be impractical and dangerous.

The debris field is about a square mile and 30 to 40 feet deep in places, with a 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.

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.

The knowledge that some victims could be abandoned to the earth is difficult to accept.

"We have to get on with our lives at some point," Bach said.

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.

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.

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Baumann reported from Seattle. Associated Press writers Phuong Le and Matt Volz in Seattle; P. Solomon Banda in Darrington, Wash.; and photographer Elaine Thompson in Oso, Wash.; and researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.

© 2014 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED. Learn more about our PRIVACY POLICY and TERMS OF USE.
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