DARRINGTON, Washington (Reuters) - Survivors of a mudslide that virtually erased a community in Washington state and left dozens dead or missing have begun to contemplate the future of the disaster site, with many saying it should be left as a shrine once the bulldozers and excavators leave.
As stagnant pools of muddy water receded further during a second straight sunny day on Tuesday, recovery teams pressed on with their search for victims of the March 22 slide, triggered when a rain-soaked hillside caved in above the north fork of the Stillaguamish River.
The torrent of mud roared over the riverbanks and across state Highway 530, engulfing some three dozen homes on the outskirts of the town of Oso in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, northeast of Seattle.
The official death toll rose to 27 on Tuesday, up from 24 a day earlier, while another 22 people were still listed as missing. The Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office said 19 of the confirmed fatalities have now been identified, including a 4-month-old girl and two other children aged 5 and 6.
With the realization that some remains may never be recovered from a mound of mud and debris up to 80 feet deep has come growing sentiment that the site should ultimately be turned into a memorial or park.
Ruth Hargrave, 67, whose neighbors are among the dead and missing, said she could not imagine rebuilding the beloved riverside vacation house that was in the path of the slide.
“Oh my God, no!” she said. “And not because of the fear of more slides. But all of that death and destruction.”
Hargrave said the stricken community, a half square mile (1.3 square km) of which lies under the mud, should be treated as “hallowed ground.” Her view is shared by many who live in the surrounding area.
“There ought to be a marker put up there honoring the people who died,” said Jan Kittleson, 59, a truck driver from Darrington, 10 miles to the east. “The river will cut its way through there the way it always has.”
Daniel Miller, a geologist and author of a 1999 study for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers warning of the potential for a “large catastrophic failure” in the vicinity of the collapsed hillside, said additional slides in the area were likely.
“I don’t think anybody should be living there,” he said. “It would be okay to do something like a park, but I don’t think there should be houses down there.”
Gary Young, a retired U.S. serviceman from Darrington, felt that future use of the site should be left up to those who own the land. “If they want to put shrines up or whatever, that’s cool. But it’s their property.”
Jaime Smith, spokeswoman for Washington state Governor Jay Inslee, said it was too soon to make plans.
“We’re still in digging-in-the-mud mode,” she said. “That conversation will happen. It will involve a lot of input from the residents.”
No signs of life have been detected since the day of the slide, when eight people were rescued, suffering injuries.
Authorities say that accounting for the number of dead has been complicated by the fact that the bodies are not always found intact. They acknowledge that some victims might be forever entombed under the massive pile of mud and rubble.
Still, scores of workers assisted by dogs were showing steady progress in recovering remains, zeroing in on areas where chunks of debris have accumulated near the surface.
“Where we find a lot of log jams and that type of areas, that’s where we’re finding the human remains,” recovery team supervisor Steve Harris told reporters.
Harris said the pace had picked up somewhat from Monday, when he reported that recovery teams were retrieving remains at the rate of four to six times a day.
The search-and-recovery force included a mix of firefighters, National Guard troops, U.S. Army soldiers and civilian volunteers - some from the local community - in an area that supervisors have mapped out in a three-dimensional grid.
The recovery work has proven to be grisly, said Bellevue fire department Lieutenant Richard Burke, an onsite spokesman.
“It’s a terrible process. It’s combat. It’s all ugly,” he told Reuters.
To lessen the swampy conditions of the site, construction crews have dug drainage channels leading to pools where the water is pumped into a nearby stream that flows back into the river.
To protect them from the toxic brew of sewage, household solvents, gasoline and other contaminants mixed in with the muck, recovery workers who need to wade through the mud and water wear protective clothing. And all the workers are hosed off at a decontamination station before leaving the site.
Harris said crews were using special long-armed excavators in areas not easily accessible because of standing water or other obstacles, and a new excavator mounted on floating pontoons has been ordered.
A team from the U.S. Geological Survey was using a boat equipped with sonar to scan some of the deeper pools of water for remains, he said.
Ed Troyer, a spokesman for a neighboring sheriff’s department assisting in the search effort, said the amount of material to be moved was staggering.
“They could be there for months and months with everybody in there and not get through half of it,” he said.
Officials have given no estimate of how much longer they might press on before giving up the search for additional remains. The governor’s office said that decision would eventually be made by the joint incident command, consisting of on-site leaders of the various local, state and federal agencies involved in the operation.
Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Gunna Dickson