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Rescuers find more bodies in Washington state mudslide rubble

Source: Reuters - Wed, 26 Mar 2014 00:43 GMT
Author: Reuters
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(Adds details of rescue operation)

By Bill Rigby

ARLINGTON, Wash., March 25 (Reuters) - Rescue workers found the bodies of more victims on Tuesday in the rubble left by a devastating Washington state landslide that officials previously said had killed at least 14 people and left scores missing.

The discovery of additional bodies came as crews searched under drizzly skies for survivors of the weekend mudslide amid fading hopes that anyone could still be plucked alive from the massive pile of muck and debris.

"Additional slide victims have been found at the landslide site off of (State Route) 530 earlier today," Snohomish County spokeswoman Shari Ireton said in a statement. "The number of victims has not yet been confirmed."

As many as 176 people remained listed as missing three days after a rain-soaked hillside collapsed, tumbling over a river, across a state road and into a rural residential area where it swallowed dozens of homes near the town of Oso.

Operators of excavators with clawed buckets dug through the debris, and chaplains stood by to comfort searchers and families of the missing.

The disaster already ranks as one of the deadliest landslides in recent U.S. history. In 2005, 10 people died when a hillside gave way and engulfed homes in La Conchita, California.

With no change overnight in the number of people missing, local fire chief Travis Hots had said he expected the fatality count to rise throughout the day in the slide area, about 55 miles (90 km) northeast of Seattle.

"The operational plan for the day is going to be challenging. The weather's changed and we've got some rain coming in. That's going to make it even more challenging for our folks that are on the ground there," Hots told reporters.

But authorities said they were hoping the number of people listed as missing would decline as some may have been double-counted or were slow to alert family and officials of their whereabouts. Eight people were injured.

At one site in a square-mile zone of devastation that once contained a meandering river surrounded by rural homes, the landslide pushed a house onto the highway, leaving nothing intact but its cedar shake roof.

"It's not just individuals that have lost friends and family, it's people out there looking that are affected by this too," said Trevor Herston, 23, a sawmill worker from the nearby town of Darrington whose girlfriend has spent long days in the grisly search and recovery effort.

'I BELIEVE IN MIRACLES'

More than 150 workers were taking part in search and recovery efforts on Tuesday and 50 National Guard members were expected to join later in the day.

John Pennington, Snohomish County's director of emergency management, said that he still hoped to find survivors in the wreckage. "I believe in miracles and I believe people can survive these events," he said.

Hots, the fire chief, said authorities were also turning back many volunteers due to unstable ground conditions and fears of another landslide. Officials have said the operation was shifting from a rescue operation to a recovery mission.

President Barack Obama, who was in Europe for a meeting with world leaders, signed an emergency declaration ordering U.S. government assistance to supplement state and local relief efforts, the White House said.

Speaking at The Hague, where he was attending a summit, Obama began a news conference on Tuesday by addressing the disaster in Washington state and asking Americans to "send their thoughts and prayers" to those affected by the disaster.

"We hope for the best, but we recognize this is a tough situation," he said.

Compounding the sense of urgency was fear of flooding as water levels rose behind a crude dam of mud and rubble that had been dumped into the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River by the slide.

The river was rising with rain on Tuesday, but it had cut a channel through fresh mud and debris, lessening the chance of flooding, officials said. (Additional reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Darrington, Wash., Steve Holland in The Hague and Susan Heavey in Washington, D.C.; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Dan Grebler, Peter Galloway and Ken Wills)

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