90 missing; mud is unrelenting, search is unwavering

ARLINGTON — They are searching for their own.

Families and friends are desperate to find the ones who were home on a Saturday morning when the earth ripped open and crashed across so many lives.

For the sixth straight day searchers waded through the unrelenting mud, sawed through downed trees and dug, often by hand, through debris.

Professional searchers were joined by the relatives and friends of those missing. There were about 100 family members helping in the search Thursday, said Steve Mason, a battalion chief with Snohomish County Fire District 1.

Up to 90 people were officially considered missing Thursday. A total of 25 are known to have died.

Late Thursday, the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office began releasing names of confirmed victims of the slide. So far only five are on the official list. They are Christina A. Jefferds, 45; Linda L. McPherson, 69; Stephen A. Neal, 55; Kaylee B. Spillers, 5; and William E. Welsh, 66.

Through verification by family members, news outlets have identified several others, as well. The list is expected to grow Friday.

Family members were driven to the mile-wide debris field on Wednesday. Others returned Thursday.

“There’s a lot of grieving going on,” Mason said.

Even so, hope remains, even as the prospects of survival become “very slim,” Arlington Rural Fire Chief Travis Hots told reporters.

“My heart is telling me that I’m not giving up yet,” he said.

No new numbers were released Thursday, but Hots said he expects an update Friday morning.

Washington National Guard Capt. Brad Sanders said Thursday afternoon searchers remain focused on finding survivors.

“From our perspective we’re in rescue mode the whole time. We never give up hope that we’ll find someone alive,” he said.

More than 200 searchers were expected to continue working the scene, moving about the mucky terrain on pathways made of plywood. No additional volunteer searchers are needed at this time, Hots said, and trained crews from outside the area are lined up to step in so those who have been on scene can rest.

The search conditions are daunting and the enormity of the slide area hard to comprehend.

“You just can’t fathom what we are up against out there until you get out there and see the lay of the land,” Hots said.

Mud covers everything, clogging tools and making for difficult travel. Much of the work must be done by hand. Balls of clay the size of ambulances tumbled down the hillside, Hots said

“It is so wet and mucky out there it is like a swamp,” Hots said. “If we were to try to put big machinery up there we would lose it.”

More than 70 people with the state National Guard assisted with the search, including two specialized units. They worked side by side with townspeople on Thursday.

“I don’t think anything could prepare you for what’s out there,” Master Sgt. Chris Martin said.

It was as if houses, mud and trees were “put in a blender” and dumped out, he said.

Senior Airman Charlotte Gibson spent the day searching piles of rubble.

She was struck by the civilians, including family of the missing, who are helping in the search.

“It’s so much harder emotionally for them,” she said.

The slide continued to block Highway 530. A task force has been pulled together to work on its reopening. The Mountain Loop Highway was reopened Wednesday afternoon, reconnecting Darrington with Granite Falls and providing an alternate route. It is a winding gravel road through the mountains and outside of cellphone range, so people who attempt to use it should do so with caution, Hots said. Four-wheel drive is recommended.

Meanwhile, crews were building a makeshift road to physically connect the west and east operations. It skirts the debris field, partially on a power line right-of-way.

The hillside that fell remains closely monitored by geologists, said Steve Thomsen, Snohomish County’s public works director. At this time, it appears stable, but crews will be sent to safer ground if that changes.

It rained today, making for more difficult conditions.

Those involved in the search are grateful for the support, including the hundreds of thousands of dollars raised to help people recover from the devastation.

Hots asked that people please stop bringing food to fire stations in Oso and Darrington. Both are overloaded.

Children on Thursday were bringing the firefighters hand-colored pictures to thank them, Hots said.

“I watched it bring season firefighters to tears today,” he said.

On the Darrington side of the slide, local volunteers in eight excavators are working alongside cadaver dog teams to search the debris, Washington State Patrol spokesman Bob Calkins said.

The local volunteers are “virtuosos” with their heavy equipment, Calkins said.

L.A. Times Reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske contributed to this report.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

New phone number

Officials ask that people with information about missing persons call the sheriff’s office tip line at 425-388-3845. A special line staffed by emergency operators has been discontinued.

A hotline also been set up for people who need counseling: 800-584-3578.

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