Washington mudslide victims remembered at tearful church services
DARRINGTON, Washington (Reuters) - Local churches offered prayers on Sunday for dozens of people dead and missing from last week's devastating mudslide in Washington state and words of solace for grieving families and friends, many of whom are still waiting for news of loved ones who vanished.
The official death toll from the March 22 catastrophe northeast of Seattle stood at 18, based on the number of victims whose bodies have been recovered and positively identified by medical examiners.
But Snohomish County authorities have acknowledged finding 10 more sets of remains that have yet to be identified, putting the overall presumed body count at 28.
In one hopeful development to the grim aftermath of the disaster, the roster of individuals still listed as missing and thus feared dead was lowered on Saturday to 30, down by two thirds from the figure that authorities had been reporting for several days.
The revision came after officials said they had managed to account for the whereabouts of dozens of people who turned out to be "safe and well."
Heavy showers and flooding this weekend hampered the ongoing efforts of teams searching for additional victims in the square mile (2.6 square km) of muck and debris left when a rain-soaked hillside collapsed without warning above the north fork of the Stillaquamish River.
The massive torrent of mud released by the slide roared over both stream banks and state Highway 530, engulfing dozens of homes on the outskirts of the rural town of Oso in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains.
No one has been pulled alive from the rubble since the day the landslide hit, when at least eight people were injured but survived, and rescue teams have found no signs of life in the ensuring eight days.
Authorities have conceded that it may end up being impossible to account for everyone lost in the disaster, and Ron Brown, a Snohomish County official involved in the search operations said the debris field may end up being the final resting place for some victims.
Many of those living close to the disaster area gathered for
services at the Glad Tidings Assembly of God church in nearby Darrington, where Pastor Les Hagen urged them to remain strong.
"We're all hurting," he said. "We've had a terrible week. It still continues, but life must go on.
"Stay in your routine," he said. "Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Because eventually all of this will be in the rear view mirror of your life and it will be a memory. It will be a horrible memory, but it will be a memory."
In addition to searching for signs of more victims in the enormous mud pile, recovery teams aided by local volunteers have been looking for personal effects such as photographs and other keepsakes that might have belonged to victims or survivors.
Once found, such items will be cleaned and stored until they can be claimed by survivors or victims' families, said disaster response spokeswoman Kris Rietmann at a news conference.
"A lot of people lost their homes. They lost friends and family, and so to be reunited with some of their physical belongings, if that's found out on the site, is a really important thing," Rietmann said.
Among those praying at the Glad Tidings Assembly of God was Todd Wright, a 32-year-old carpenter.
"It's nice to get it out. Tears go, and it makes you feel damn better," Wright said after the service.
Daniel Botamanenko, a 21-year-old college student at the service, added: "This is a place where people can hopefully find some degree of comfort from others. It's a healing place, really."
At the Oso Community Chapel, where about 100 people filled the pews, a helicopter could be heard overheard as prayers were said for those who died.
One man read aloud a passage from the Bible's Book of Isaiah to start the service: "Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed."
Pastor Gary Ray told the congregation: "We've been knocked down, but we won't be knocked out. I don't know how many days and minutes we have left, but I know we have this one here."
Ray asked people to share their personal thoughts, and many were tearful as they rose to speak.
"I genuinely love this place," one woman said. "I love these people."
Funeral preparations were being made for those lost in the tragedy.
At the Weller Funeral Home in Arlington, a few miles (km) from the site of the mudslide, staff members who typically plan two to three funerals weekly said they were preparing for 12 this week.