Churches to honor victims as Washington state mudslide death toll climbs
(Reuters) - Churches planned services on Sunday to offer prayers for the victims of last week's devastating mudslide in Washington state as the death toll from the disaster kept rising but the number of missing fell sharply.
The presumed body count rose to 28 on Saturday from the March 22 catastrophe northeast of Seattle, with the official tally of those killed now 18 based on bodies extricated and identified by medical examiners.
But despite the grim toll, news also came that the number of missing fell to 30 from 90 as officials were able to account for dozens of people as "safe and well."
Rescue and recovery workers pushed through wind and rain on Saturday to comb through debris a week after a rain-soaked hillside above the north fork of the Stillaguamish River gave way without warning and sent a wall of mud cascading over dozens of homes near the rural Washington town of Oso.
Churches will lead prayers on Sunday for victims and their families as well as rescue workers who have been searching through a debris field that covers a square mile (2.6 square km).
Gordy Beil, a 63-year-old photographer and painter in Darrington, about 10 miles from Oso, said he anticipated a painful service at the Episcopal church he plans to attend on Sunday morning.
"It will be good for people to go and get what they need to get out of it," he said.
Don Little, 66, a Redmond, Washington, resident in town to visit his son, said he would attend the Church of God of Prophecy in Darrington, where one of the congregants has a husband among the missing and is having a hard time grasping that he is gone.
Those at the service will be praying both for the miracle of his safety and for the woman's coming to accept her loss with a measure of peace, Little said.
"She's still hoping beyond hope that they find him alive, and everybody's wishing for that," he said. "Sometimes we don't get what we really want but we've got to learn to accept things."
Funeral preparations are also beginning for those lost in the tragedy.
At the Weller Funeral Home in the town of Arlington, only a few miles from the site of the mudslide, staff members who typically plan two to three funerals weekly are preparing for 12 this week.
"Some people who have come here, they've only found one family member, and they're now searching for the fourth or fifth or sixth member of the family," said Diane Wilson-simon, who helps families plan services at the funeral home.
No one has been pulled alive from the rubble since the day the landslide hit, when at least eight people were injured but survived. Rescuers have found no signs of life since then.
Ron Brown, a Snohomish County official involved in search-and-rescue operations, said the debris field may end up being the final resting place for some victims, who may be buried so thoroughly they cannot be found.
"That's going to be hallowed ground out there," he said.
In addition to prayers, many are offering donations of money, food, clothing and other items.
At the Weller Funeral Home, Wilson-simon said she had been overwhelmed by the generosity of people who had donated to help pay for victims' funerals.
"It's just overwhelming to see so much loss of life, but heartwarming to see so much outpouring of community support," she said."
(Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Darrington, Wash., and Bryan Cohen in Arlington, Washington; Writing by Carey Gillam; Editing by Peter Cooney)