Death toll in Washington mudslide continues to climb: Now at 39

Medical examiners have removed two more bodies from the square-mile debris field of last month's devastating Washington state landslide, pushing the death toll to 39 on Wednesday.

The three bodies recovered this week have not been identified, keeping the number of people missing at seven. If all those missing are eventually confirmed dead, at least 42 people will have died in the swift collapse of a 600-foot-high hillside.

The gush of mud, clay and silt spilled across a river and wiped out homes and a highway in its path, leaving behind hundreds of acres of muck that searchers have been trudging through for 3 1/2 weeks. Some of the piles of mud are four stories deep.

The searchers have been assisted by dogs, backhoes and other construction equipment. But they've been slowed down by Washington's rainy weather, worries about the river flooding, and hazardous waste such as gas from damaged cars. A flood watch is in effect for Thursday.

More than 625 people were working at the scene on Tuesday. The crews have been concentrating on areas where now unrecognizable-homes are likely to be buried.

"We're not trying to clear-search every square as much as go look at the highest probability areas where these folks are most likely to lie," Seth Barnes, spokesman for the state's disaster team, told the Los Angeles Times. "We'll leave alone the other areas unless we need to change strategies. We're going by the odds."

About 30% of those high-probability zones have been searched, he said Wednesday.

The victims have included six children, including a 4-month-old who died alongside her grandmother. Other confirmed victims have included contractors fixing up a recently purchased home and a young couple who were to marry this year. The oldest confirmed victim has been a 91-year-old woman.

When searchers locate a body, they blow a whistle.

"Everything stops, they bow their heads, and they wait while that person is taken out," Barnes said. 

Two whistles signal an all-clear.

"It's moving," Barnes said. "It's emotional work for the rescuers who've been working side-by-side with family members looking for their loved ones since Day 1."

Personal effects, such as jewelry and photographs, found in the debris are being transferred to a secure warehouse, where they are cleaned by volunteers.

Scientists haven't identified a definitive cause for the landslide. But they have said that abnormally high rainfall and a historically weak hillside were contributing factors.

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