ARLINGTON, Wash. — More than 200 emergency responders and volunteers burrowed through tons of mud, crushed homes and twisted cars for a fifth day Wednesday in search for survivors and bodies buried in the mudslide that devastated the village of Oso.
Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington confirmed two more bodies were recovered and eight others located Tuesday, raising the death toll to 24.
The grim discoveries and the knowledge that dozens of neighbors and friends remained missing darkened the mood of the search effort. The threat of flash floods or another landslide kept responders on edge.
Both Pennington and Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots acknowledged the chance of finding survivors was small, but said the effort remained a rescue and recovery operation.
"We haven't lost hope. There's a possibility that we could find somebody alive in some pocket area as the days go on," Hots said. "We are coming to the realization that may not be a possibility, but we are going full steam ahead."
Hots said about 200 responders used search dogs, heavy equipment and their bare hands Tuesday to dig through the debris field — once a community of a few dozen homes on the Stillaguamish River offering breathtaking views of hillsides and a bluff. On-and-off rain throughout the day created wet roads and dangerous conditions for searchers.
A volunteer rescue worker was injured when a small piece of debris was thrown up in helicopter wash and struck the man in the head. The worker was taken to the hospital with what were described as minor injuries.
Another volunteer, local logger Gene Karger, said he could see six orange flags in the debris field, marking bodies they would be pulling out. Karger said it was the first time he was involved in this kind of rescue work.
"You see parts of their bodies sticking out of the mud. It's real hard. It's that bad," Karger said. "There are people out there we know."
Pennington said local authorities were vigilant about warning the public of landslide dangers, and homeowners "were very aware of the slide potential."
The area has long been known as the "Hazel Landslide" because of landslides over the past half-century. The last major one before Saturday's disaster was in 2006.
"We've done everything we could to protect them," Pennington said.
Patricia Graesser, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers in Seattle, said it appears the report was intended not as a risk assessment, but as a feasibility study for ecosystem restoration.
Asked whether the agency should have done anything with the information, she said, "We don't have jurisdiction to do anything. We don't do zoning. That's a local responsibility."
The Snohomish County Helicopter Rescue Team releases dramatic video of the rescue of a toddler from the top of the mud pile in the immediate hours after the catastrophic mudslide in Washington state. Video provided by Reuters Newslook
For friends, family and co-workers of the dead and missing, life must go on. Christina Jefferds, 45, was among the first confirmed fatalities. Her empty desk at the Marysville dental office where she worked for more than 20 years is a constant reminder to her co-workers.
"She's just a wonderful person — caring, giving, loving," said dentist Kelly Peterson, Jefferds boss and a family friend.
Jefferds was babysitting her 4-month-old granddaughter Sanoah on Saturday morning when the mudslide came down on their Steelhead Drive home.
Her firefighter husband and adult daughter, Sanoah's mom, quickly joined the search. Sanoah remained missing Wednesday. The search for Christina ended Sunday.
"When you're in this biz you know that from time to time there will be occasions where authorities come by and ask for records to identify somebody," Peterson said tearfully. "But you don't think it's going to be one your own."
Graf is a reporter for KING5.com in Seattle