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Washington state mudslide: The grim process of removing the dead

ARLINGTON, Wash. -- Of all the help that has arrived here along the Stillaguamish River in the wake of Saturday's deadly mudslide, one group in particular stands out.

The state mortuary assistance team is now in place and ready to work.

"There is a point at which you bring them in," John Pennington, director of the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management, told reporters during a rain-soaked Tuesday morning news conference. "This is that particular point."

The death toll stands at 14, and the list of the missing or unaccounted for is still 176. But officials said Tuesday both of those numbers should change by day's end.

With 156 emergency workers scouring the debris and dozens more en route, more bodies are expected to be recovered as the emergency effort shifts from search and rescue toward simply recovering bodies from the square mile of debris.

"Yesterday I reported that we didn't find any signs of life," said Travis Hots, chief of Snohomish County Fire District 21. "I'm saddened to tell you that that is the case again today from the night shift."

The National Guard is en route, officials said, and emergency workers are trying to ping cell phones that may be buried in the rubble in an effort to locate bodies. The day's rain is complicating efforts and making the search more treacherous.

"It's going to further complicate things, slow things down a little bit," Hots told reporters. "But our guys are out there. They're going to be out there digging around just like they were yesterday, working hard, trying to find everybody they can."

Hots said he expects the search effort to take weeks but vowed Tuesday morning that "we are going to do our very best to get everybody out of there."

Speaking at a news conference at The Hague in the Netherlands, President Obama praised the emergency efforts and acknowledged the widespread grief here.

"We know that part of this tightly knit community has been lost," he said. "So I would just ask all Americans to send their thoughts and prayers to Washington state and the community of Oso and the families and friends of those who continue to be missing.

"We hope for the best," Obama said, "but we recognize this is a tough situation."

The mudslide hit late Saturday morning, a sunny day when residents least expected the saturated earth to tumble down, crushing 49 homes, burying State Route 530, cutting off the small town of Darrington to the east of the rubble and leaving a gash in the hillside taller than the Washington Monument.

Record March rains are largely to blame for the current slide, a mirror image of an earlier disaster that carved out the hillside in 2006. On Tuesday there were questions about whether the county had done enough to warn residents of the possibility of danger.

"My job is advance warning and public information," Pennington told reporters. "If I had any idea that this was gong to break on that Saturday morning, come on guys....this is just one that hit us.

"We've done everything we could to protect them," he continued. "We mitigated the landslide from 2006. There's been advance warnings and notifications of the high risk for landslides.

"We've done everything we could," he said. "My heart goes out to all of the individuals. We're going to get to the bottom of this."

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maria.laganga@latimes.com

@marialaganga

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