(Adds quotes from news conference, details on disaster)
By Bill Rigby
ARLINGTON, Wash., March 25 The likely death toll from a devastating weekend landslide in Washington state rose to 24 on Tuesday after rescue workers recovered two bodies and believed they had located eight more, the local fire chief said.
As many as 176 people remained listed as missing three days after a rain-soaked hillside collapsed on Saturday, tumbling over a river, across a state road and into a rural residential area where it buried dozens of homes near the town of Oso.
The discovery of additional bodies came as crews searched in drizzling rain for survivors amid fading hopes that anyone could still be plucked alive from the massive pile of heavy muck and debris.
"Unfortunately we did not find any signs of life today, we didn't locate anybody alive, so that's the disappointing part," local fire chief Travis Hots told a media briefing, adding that the official death toll would remain at 16 until the eight sets of remains could be extricated and sent to the medical examiner.
Officials said they were hoping that the number of missing would decline as some of those listed may have been double-counted or were slow to alert family and officials of their whereabouts. Eight people were injured.
But the disaster already ranks as one of the deadliest landslides in recent U.S. history. In 1969, 150 people were killed in landslides and ensuing floods in Nelson County, Virginia, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Though authorities have said chances were low of finding more survivors in the cement-like mud blanketing the landscape, Hots said some 50 more searchers had been brought in to sift through the disaster zone in hopes of a miracle.
"This makes up over 200 responders that are here on-site, working very hard to locate victims and hopefully find somebody that is still alive. That is still our number-one priority out there," he said.
Search and rescue operations would carry on to a lesser extent throughout the night and would ramp up to full strength again at first light, he said.
'TWISTED AND TORN'
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.
Elsewhere, operators of excavators with clawed buckets dug through the debris, and chaplains stood by to comfort searchers and families of the missing.
"What we're finding is these vehicles are twisted and torn up into pieces," Hots said. "It's not just cars. It's done that to these buildings. And so there's carpeting, photo albums, vehicles, and boats and wood piles under all his mud that's heavy. It's just a slow, slow process."
Hots said dogs were being used to find possible buried bodies, and sophisticated electronic equipment including small cameras and listening devices were brought in as workers removed debris by hand.
In Arlington, a town near Oso where authorities set up a command post, thoughts were clearly on the search and recovery efforts a dozen miles away. Residents greeted each other with hugs, and in one supermarket they put non-perishable food into a steel tub to collect for anyone who might need assistance.
"I was born and raised in this town, it's traumatic for us," said 45-year-old Julie Biringer, who offered hugs to customers at her drive-through coffee stand. "There's been a lot of tears I've shared with my customers today."
Meanwhile, a 22-week-old baby who was hurt in the slide remained in critical condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle after being taken there by helicopter along with his mother, who was also hurt, the hospital said.
OBAMA HOPES FOR THE BEST
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. The president also called Washington Governor Jay Inslee on Tuesday to discuss the mudslide, according to Inslee's office.
Compounding the sense of urgency was a fear of flooding as water levels rose behind a crude dam of mud and rubble that was dumped into the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River by the slide. The river was rising with rain on Tuesday but had cut a channel through fresh mud and debris, lessening the chance of flooding, officials said.
The landslide was not the first to hit an inhabited area in Washington state. More than 100 houses were destroyed by a slow-moving landslide in the town of Kelso in the late 1990s.
A report filed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1999 highlighted "the potential for a large catastrophic failure," and was one of many warnings issued about the area where this weekend's disaster occurred, the Seattle Times reported. (Additional reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Darrington, Wash., Steve Holland in The Hague, Susan Heavey in Washington, D.C., and Alex Dobuzinskis and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Ken Wills)