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Washington mudslide: Search ends for last 2 bodies

Eleven people were rescued, 41 died, and two people remain missing.
"We really wanted to be the group that recovered everybody. We haven't lost faith," Sheriff Ty Trenary said.

EVERETT, Wash. -- The numbers tell the story in the lovely but dangerous Stillaguamish Valley, site of a deadly March landslide, one of the worst natural disasters in Washington state history.

Thirty-seven days spent searching for victims -- first survivors, then remains. Eleven people rescued. Forty-one bodies found. Two people still missing. And one heart-wrenching decision.

On Monday morning, officials announced that teams of professionals and volunteers will no longer actively look for Molly Kristine "Kris" Regelbrugge, 44, and Steven N. Hadaway, 53, last seen March 22, when millions of cubic yards of fast-moving mud and debris wiped the Steelhead Haven neighborhood of Oso off the map in a matter of minutes.

No signs of human life have been detected on the square mile of devastation dubbed "the pile" since the hillside roared down onto the tiny enclave, which lost about a fifth of its population in a single day. Easter Sunday was the last time searchers discovered remains -- those of Stephen D. and Teresa C. Harris, ages 52 and 53 respectively.

The couple, like the rest of the slide victims identified by the medical examiner's office, died of multiple blunt force injuries.

"I'm here today to announce the end of our active search operations in the field," an emotional Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary told reporters Monday. "This has been a difficult decision, because I know that Kris and Steve's families are both looking for closure."

It was not the announcement that Trenary wanted to make, he said, as he acknowledged that Regelbrugge and Hadaway’s bodies may never be found.

"It's been very difficult for me to get up and make the statement that I made today," Trenary said in a news conference that alternated between resignation and hope. "We really wanted to be the group that recovered everybody. We haven’t lost faith."

Trenary said that "a little bit of soul searching and a lot of information from the scene" led emergency officials to decide to ratchet down the search operation from a peak of 1,000 people a day combing the debris for the living, then the dead, and finally for belongings lost when dozens of homes and cars were pancaked on a bright spring Saturday morning.

Today, only 30 or so people are left searching the massive pile, although Trenary said officials here in Snohomish County "will continue to be involved in coordinating small-scale search efforts based on evidence and weather."

The slide blocked State Route 530, cutting off the tiny logging community of Darrington from easy access to jobs and services. Officials believe that Regelbrugge’s body is buried in deep mud and debris somewhere on the Oso edge of the slide, and Hadaway’s is under water somewhere on the Darrington side of the wreckage.

"On the Darrington side, the issue we're fighting is water," Trenary said. "It's dangerous. We need some of the water to go away before we can get into some of the areas that are closed off to us right now. On the Oso side, it's like finding a needle in a haystack. And that's what we're working on doing."

The sheriff said officials "know Kris is over on the Oso side. It's still been very, very difficult and painful to try to find her. Her sons are desperate to find her."

The remains of Regelbrugge's husband, U.S. Navy Cmdr. Leon "John" Regelbrugge, 49, were identified by the medical examiner’s office March 29. He was the tenth victim identified.

Hadaway, who worked for Dish Network, was installing satellite service at the home of Amanda B. Lennick, a 31-year-old nurse, on the morning of the slide. Lennick had just moved to the rural area and had a busy morning of home repair planned.

Also at Lennick's home were plumber Stephen A. Neal, 55, who was installing a hot water heater, and electrician William E. Welsh, 66.

Neal was the second slide victim identified by the medical examiner’s office. Welsh was the fifth. Lennick was No. 15.

Officials announced Monday that a commission has been formed to review circumstances leading to the slide and the official response afterward. The March slide was not the first in the region, and it is unclear whether efforts to shore up the hillside after a 2006 incident were sufficient.

More big questions facing the region have yet to be answered:

When will State Route 530 be dug out, allowing Darrington residents easy access to jobs and medical care again? Will the residents whose homes were destroyed be able to rebuild in the same spot? Will they want to? Will Steelhead Haven be a neighborhood again, or will it end up as a memorial?

"Our goal is to do our best to bring normalcy back to the valley in a timely manner," Snohomish County executive director Gary Haakenson said Monday, "knowing full well that, for many families, normalcy will never happen."

maria.laganga@latimes.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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