The likely death toll from a devastating weekend landslide in Washington state has risen to 24 after rescue workers recovered two bodies and believed they had located eight more, according to the local fire chief.
As many as 176 people were still listed as missing late on Tuesday, three days after a rain-soaked hillside collapsed on 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 all of the remains could be extricated and sent to the medical examiner.
Officials said they were hoping the number of missing would decline as some of those listed might have been double-counted or were slow to alert family and officials of their whereabouts, Reuters reported. Eight people were injured.
Though authorities have said chances were low of finding more survivors in the cement-like mud blanketing the landscape, Hots said another 50 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 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.
At one site, the landslide pushed a house onto the highway, leaving nothing intact but its cedar 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 this 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.
A 22-week-old baby who was hurt in the slide remained in a 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.
Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama signed an emergency declaration ordering 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.
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 disaster already ranks as one of the deadliest landslides in recent US history. In 1969, 150 people were killed in landslides and ensuing floods in Nelson County, Virginia, according to the US Geological Survey.
The landslide was not the first to hit 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 US 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 the weekend’s disaster occurred, the Seattle Times reported.