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Official mudslide death toll expected to 'go up dramatically'

ARLINGTON, Wash. -- With rescuers entering the sixth day of their search effort, the death toll from the mudslide east of the town of Oso was expected to rise "dramatically," officials said Thursday.

Sixteen have been confirmed dead.  But officials believe they have located at least nine more bodies in the square-mile debris field of the Snohomish County landslide. Officials said 90 people are missing or unaccounted for.

Chief Travis Hots, of Snohomish County Fire District 21, said the recovery effort is arduous, somber and can take hours once searchers find a body in the slurry.  

One victim had apparently been driving on State Route 530 before the slide smashed into the driver's car, dragging it 200 feet. Rescuers had to remove the roof of the car to extract the body, Hots said.

"Once the person is removed, it gets kind of somber out there," Hots said. "You can hear a pin drop. You get seasoned veterans who tear up. It's our way of paying respect."

The Snohomish County Medical Examiner's Office will release the number of dead. Unfortunately, Hots said, "you are going to see those numbers go up dramatically" in the next 24 to 48 hours.

It's been a solemn scene on what rescuers have called "the pile," a complex, treacherous mound of mud that separated from a nearby hill and crashed through a community of at least 49 homes along the Stillaguamish River.

"You just can't fathom what we're up against until you see the lay of the land," said Hots, who added that he decided to spend Wednesday in the disaster site rather than go home. "It's unreal. You've got clay balls the size of ambulances that have rolled off the hill and smashed through [the area]. ... There's a lot of areas we can't get machinery in. It's so wet and mucky, it's like a swamp."

Hots refused to give up the hope of finding a survivor -- something that hasn't happened since Saturday, the day of the slide.

"My heart is telling me that I'm not giving up yet," Hots said. "We're still going at this full steam ahead. We're going to do everything we can ... even if we can just save one more person."

[For The Record, 1:15 p.m. PDT March 27: A previous version of this post referred to the Stillaguamish River as the Squallamish River.]

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