Families of mudslide victims confront grim reality: Some of the dead may never be found

The Associated Press

Searchers walk into the scene of a deadly mudslide that covers the road, Wednesday, March 26, 2014, in Oso, Wash. Sixteen bodies have been recovered, but authorities believe at least 24 people were killed. And scores of others are still unaccounted for, although many of those names were believed to be duplicates or people who escaped safely. (AP Photo/Rick Wilking, Pool)

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By BRIAN SKOLOFF and LISA BAUMANN, Associated Press

DARRINGTON, Wash. (AP) — Becky Bach watches and waits, hoping that search crews find her brother and three other relatives who are missing in Washington state's deadly mudslide.

Doug Massingale waits too, for word about his 4-month-old granddaughter. Searchers were able to identify carpet from the infant's bedroom, but a log jam stood in the way of a more thorough effort to find little Sanoah Huestis, known as "Snowy."

With little hope to cling to, family members of the missing are beginning to confront a grim reality: Their loved ones might never be found, remaining entombed forever inside a mountain of mud that is believed to have claimed more than 20 lives

"It just generates so many questions if they don't find them," Bach said. "I've never known anybody to die in a natural disaster. Do they issue death certificates?"

Search crews using dogs, bulldozers and their bare hands kept slogging through the mess of broken wood and mud again Wednesday, looking for more bodies or anyone who might still be alive nearly five days after a wall of fast-moving earth destroyed a small rural community. But authorities have acknowledged they might have to leave some victims buried.

Wednesday afternoon Washington State Patrol spokesman Bob Calkins said additional remains were found, but authorities would wait to release more specific information Wednesday evening.

Previously, authorities said they believed they had found 24 bodies from the slide that swept through a rural area north of Seattle on Saturday, though not all had been removed from the area.

Dozens of people remain unaccounted for, although that number is expected to go down.

Trying to recover every corpse would be impractical and dangerous.

The debris field is about a square mile and 30 to 40 feet deep in places, with a moon-like surface that includes quicksand-like muck, rain-slickened mud and ice. The terrain is difficult to navigate on foot and makes it treacherous or impossible to bring in heavy equipment.

To make matters worse, the pile is laced with other hazards that include fallen trees, propane and septic tanks, twisted vehicles and countless shards of shattered homes.

"We have to get on with our lives at some point," said Bach, who has spent the past several days in the area in hopes that searchers would find her brother, his wife, her 20-year-old great niece and the young girl's fiance.

The knowledge that some victims could be abandoned to the earth is difficult to accept.

"Realistically ...I honestly don't think they're going to find them alive," Bach said, crying. "But as a family, we're trying to figure out what to do if they find no bodies."

Bach spoke via phone about a wedding the family had planned for summer at the rural home that was destroyed. And how, she wondered, do you plan a funeral without a body? "We'll probably just have a memorial, and if they find the bodies eventually, then we'll deal with that then."

A death certificate, issued by the state, is legal proof that someone has died. Families often need them to settle their affairs. The authority to issue them starts with a county medical examiner or coroner, said Donn Moyer, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Health. If and when it appears there is no chance of finding someone, people can ask the county to start that process.

In previous mudslides, many victims were left where they perished. Mudslides killed thousands in Venezuela in 1999, and about 1,500 bodies were found. But the death toll was estimated at 5,000 to 30,000, so the government declared entire neighborhoods "memorial grounds."

Two Washington National Guard Blackhawk helicopters arrived at the site Wednesday to relieve sheriff's helicopter crews that had been working since Saturday.

The Blackhawks' sole mission is body removal, said Bill Quistorf, chief pilot for the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office.