ARLINGTON, Wash. (AP) — Washington state officials all but abandoned hope Friday of finding survivors under tons of twisted, sodden earth as a community waited in anguish to learn the full scope of what is already one of the most devastating landslides in U.S. history.
The grueling process of locating, extracting and identifying human remains from the unstable debris covering the community of Oso northeast of Seattle has slowed the release of information by the Snohomish County Medical Examiner's Office to a trickle.
Crews may be finding more remains amid the destruction, but the official death toll will remain at 17 until medical examiners can complete the "very, very challenging" task of identifying the bodies, said Snohomish County Executive Director Gary Haakenson.
Authorities have located at least eight other bodies in addition to the 17, and they previously said they expect the number of fatalities from Saturday's mudslide to rise substantially.
Ninety people were listed as missing, but hope for them began fading by midweek when they had not checked in with friends or relatives, and no one had emerged from the pile alive.
"We always want to hold out hope, but I think at some point we have to expect the worst," Haaksenson said.
Leslie Zylstra said everybody in town knows someone who died, and the village was coming to grips with the fact that many of the missing may remain entombed in the debris.
"The people know there's no way anybody could have survived," said Zylstra, who used to work in an Arlington hardware store. "They just want to have their loved ones, to bury their loved ones."
Haakenson described for the first time Friday the difficulty of the searchers' task. When a body is found, the spot is marked for a helicopter pickup.
That only happens when the helicopters are able to fly in the wind and rain that has pummeled the search area. The victim is then placed in a truck in a holding area.
At the end of the day, all the recovered victims are transported to the medical examiner's office about 20 miles away in Everett.
"Autopsies are performed, the process of identification takes place — if possible," Haakenson said. "The identification process has been very, very challenging. Once identified, we send a chaplain to the family, to notify them of our findings."
In addition to bearing the stress of the disaster, townspeople were increasingly frustrated by the lack of information from authorities, said Mary Schoenfeldt, a disaster traumatologist who has been providing counseling services at schools and for public employees and volunteers.
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