ARLINGTON, Wash. – Five days after tons of mud roared down a mountainside and obliterated the village of Oso, searchers on Thursday continued the arduous task of digging for victims.
"This is not an exact science," said Travis Hits, chief of Snohomish County Fire District 21. "A dog will go out there and get a hit in a particular area. But what happens is down in all that muck and debris, sometimes that scent doesn't come up where the person is.
"It can come up the path of least resistance. So that person could be 30 or 40 feet away."
The searchers use long probes to open holes that allow the scent to come to the surface.
"Then they'll see where the dogs get really excited," Hits said. "And then they bring in a second dog, to see if it smells anything."
At that point crews with shovels and sometimes just their bare hands come in to dig.
"If we tried to bring in heavy machinery we'd just lose it in the muck," Hots said.
At least two dozen people are confirmed dead after the mile-wide slide destroyed a street of houses along the bend in the North fork of the Stillaguamish River. About 180 people lived on Steelhead Drive, and as many as 90 people remain missing and unaccounted for, county Emergency Management Director John Pennington said.
The number dropped from 176 Wednesday, when crews were finally able to restore electricity, phone and Internet service to the town of Darrington on the east side of the slide. It had been cut off since Sunday morning and many of those who fled there hadn't been able to report to friends and loved ones that they were OK.
Cross-checking the list of missing people is painstaking work, Pennington said. Hope that the list might shrink is dimming.
"I think we have to be logical here," Pennington said. "Unless you're in a jungle in South America, you know what happened here. By now, someone has reached out to them and said 'Hey, that's your home town. They're looking for you.'"
He said he doesn't expect many more people to call in to say they're fine. "If you're on this list of 90, you're on this list."
In addition to the missing or unaccounted-for list, there remain 35 people whose status is listed as "unknown."
"It could be as simple as 'John Doe, who lives on Steelhead Lane, we think he had a girlfriend Sally,'" Pennington said.
The 16 bodies recovered so far were to be flown out by helicopter and taken to the Snohomish County medical examiner, said Steve Westlake, chief of the county Emergency Management Operations Section.
The search for bodies is difficult, treacherous work. The soil around the area remains muddy and unstable. With Highway 530 covered under tons of rock and soil, teams are going in on back access roads.
On Wednesday, a truck carrying gravel to help stabilize the roads slid off into a ditch, blocking access to the search site for several hours.
The scope and sheer power of the slide is difficult to imagine, said Snohomish County Executive John Lovick.
"Nothing in the world could have prepared me for what I saw, and I worked for 31 years as a state trooper," he said. "When I flew over the area on Sunday, I said you needed to see it to believe it. Now that I've seen it from the ground, I must tell you that I still can't believe what I saw."