Mudslide: Another victim found, but death toll stays at 17 for now

ARLINGTON, Wash. -- Rescue workers found one more victim in the debris field of the massive mudslide in Oso, but officials said Friday that the number of confirmed dead would stay at 17 for now.

Gary Haakenson, Snohomish County's executive director, said he understood that many want a more firm count of the dead and missing.

"I have shared the frustration of the victim count being a moving target," he said at a news conference here.

PHOTOS: Mudslide in Washington

Officials have said 17 people were confirmed dead, 90 were unaccounted for and an additional 35 may have been in the area Saturday when a chunk of the mountain came down.

"The process has been very, very challenging," said Haakenson, who stopped at the county medical examiner's office and verified the latest death toll on Thursday.

"Think about how long it takes to identify one body. Now think about two or three or four," he said.

He said crews were still finding bodies in the field.

Asked whether the list of 90 missing should be considered presumed dead, Haakenson said, "We always want to hold out hope, but I think at some point we have to expect the worst."

The mudslide in rural Oso, about an hour north of Seattle, destroyed 49 homes and wiped out a portion of the highway that cuts through the town of about 200 people.

Searchers and forensic teams, along with relatives of the missing and other volunteers, are spending the seventh straight day meticulously combing through a square-mile debris field, but hopes have dimmed that any survivors will be found.

There were dramatic rescues immediately after the slide, and bodies recovered since, most recently the body of a baby on Thursday. But in recent days, searchers have not found a survivor among the square-mile debris field of gray muck and piles of downed trees.

Rain was falling in the area Friday, which searchers say makes their job tougher, muddying the scene and impeding heavy equipment.

Searchers have had to pick their way through the mud, thick as wet cement, wearing waders or walking atop a makeshift network of trees and planks.

Some survivors plucked from the wreckage within the first hour of the mudslide said they were not optimistic that others could have lasted days in the harsh conditions they barely survived.

"Every day that goes by, I'm less hopeful," Robin Youngblood, 63, who was rescued immediately after the slide, said earlier this week.

In Arlington, relatives of the missing have shown up at Your Daily Grind coffee stand, where a sign says "Oso Strong" and barista Katie Anderson listens to their stories.

"We've been asking locals who's been found," said Anderson, 20. "You can tell the customers who've been up there because their eyes are all red."

The coffee stand donated all its profits Tuesday, $3,000, to survivors and had a donation jar out Friday. Anderson said most of those she has talked to are encouraged that the search for survivors has continued.

"Some people might be here forever, but they're trying," she said.

Bernard McVay, 52, runs a welding company in nearby Marysville but has been driving to Oso to volunteer servicing excavating equipment. He was grateful that officials allowed families to visit the site and do all they could to locate their loved ones.

"I don't think they're going to find anybody alive, but let's give some closure to people," he said.

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