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March 27, 2014

Mudslide region deals with 'mind-numbing' disaster

In the days since the devastating landslide swept through a stretch of northwest Washington state, all the news has been bad. As hundreds of workers spent a fifth day digging through debris and wreckage, the death toll increased to 16 and was expected to keep rising; worse, no survivors have been found since Saturday, the day the landslide hit.

More than 200 rescue workers continued to search the area, trying to find survivors and bodies, a job complicated by the nature of the landslide site, which has been compared to quicksand by officials. The slide area spans a square mile, and it is at least 15 feet deep in some spots, according to the county. Rescue workers must search a sea of mud and debris, navigating the twisted wreckage of cars, piles of wood, refuse from homes, spilled gasoline and septic material that are all mixed together in the search area.

"Our rescuers were sinking down to their thighs in the soft silt," Bill Quistorf, the chief helicopter pilot for the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office, said during a news conference Wednesday. "It was very difficult."

These workers are digging through the carnage with their hands and shovels, searching the area from helicopters and with infrared scanners, trying to focus on areas where they think there could be people. Using search dogs has been the most effective way of finding bodies, helping rescuers to figure out the areas to look, Travis Hots, the Snohomish County District 21 fire chief, told reporters.

Rain arrived Tuesday and was expected to continue for days, which made for another challenge, Hots said. The environment itself has also posed dangers and challenges. Rescue crews had been pulled back for a few hours Monday because of fears that additional slides were possible, while authorities are also keeping an eye on the Stillaguamish River to watch for flood hazards.

"It's just amazing the magnitude and the force that this slide has created and what it has done," Hots said.

The field of debris can also be dangerous for workers. A volunteer rescue worker was taken to the hospital after suffering minor injuries Tuesday; a helicopter kicked up a small bit of debris that hit him in the head.

"It was pretty mind-numbing," rescue worker Randy Fay said of the devastation.

He choked up when describing the rescue of a young boy on Saturday. Working with injured children is the hardest thing, he said, because you think about your own loved ones.

"The good news, the silver lining, is mom and kid are back together, so that's what you hang onto," he said during an emotional appearance.

The death toll had reached 16 by Wednesday, and authorities believed they had found another eight bodies, although those have not been recovered or brought to a medical examiner, John Pennington, director of emergency for the county, said in a briefing.

"We believe we have located an additional eight, but that is not a confirmed number yet," Pennington said.

Ninety people are still missing or unaccounted for after the slide, he said Wednesday night. In addition, there are nearly three dozen other people whose status remains unknown.

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