(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
"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