By Eric M. Johnson
ARLINGTON, Washington (Reuters) - The death toll from a catastrophic mudslide in Washington state appeared poised to climb dramatically as rescue teams drenched by steady rains on Friday clawed through thick muck searching for more victims nearly a week after a disaster that has left 90 people missing.
At least 26 people were killed when a rain-soaked hillside collapsed without warning last Saturday, unleashing a towering wall of mud that flattened dozens of homes in a river valley near the rural town of Oso, about 55 miles northeast of Seattle.
While fire officials directing search operations at the disaster site have spoken of making slow but steady progress in recovering remains of victims buried in the slide, the tally of the dead has changed little in recent days, even as the number of those listed as missing has held steady.
The apparent discrepancy appeared related to a methodical protocol being followed by Snohomish County emergency management officials and medical examiners.
County authorities say coroners have examined and identified the remains of 17 people, including an infant whose body was retrieved on Thursday, and they are the only ones counted so far in the official death toll.
Officials have previously said that remains of nine more individuals have been located in the square-mile (2.6 sq km) heap of mud-caked debris and muck, but as of Friday they had been excluded from the formal tally of lives lost.
County officials have insisted on revising that list only as each set of remains goes through the painstaking process of being examined and identified by coroners, leaving the media and the public at large mostly in the dark about the retrieval of more bodies.
But word of additional remains being located and recovered trickling out to family members of the missing and dead through word-of-mouth and other channels, as many community members were working side-by-side with rescue teams in the search for more victims.
Area churches and fire stations are also go-to venues for members of the community seeking updates, said Gail Moffett of Oso, who lives 2 miles from the disaster site and works at a hardware store in nearly Arlington.
"I go home and talk to the source, because it's family," she said of the community network, including locally based rescue workers, she has tapped into for information.
"They are all out there on the mudslide every day. Going back, and going back, and going back. Day after day after day, to make a difference and to help our people. And they just keep doing it and they come in at night and their butts dragging, covered in mud, and their faces are not the faces I knew last week," she said.
In addition, authorities have in some cases allowed victims' relatives onto the disaster site as the remains of loved ones are recovered, as occurred when the body of the infant was extricated on Thursday.
TOLL MAY INCREASE DRAMATICALLY
With nearly a week passing since the disaster, fears have grown that the ultimate death toll could come close to the 90 people still listed as missing or unaccounted for - a figure authorities arrived at on Wednesday after winnowing a much larger list by about half.
An estimated 180 people lived in the path of the landslide.
Although authorities have so far publicly identified five dead, and have withheld the names of everyone else listed as dead or missing, about 40 were identified on a local blog site, including several members of one family.
Authorities already have said that some of those killed might never be found, and on Thursday braced the public for news - still yet to come - that the number of dead would "increase substantially" in the next 24 to 28 hours.
Local fire district chief Travis Hots said rain and wind sweeping the area on Friday was working against the round-the-clock search efforts, adding, "We've got a hard day ahead of us."
All of those discovered alive in the mud were rescued by helicopter within the first few hours after the landslide, and rescuers have found no further signs of life, officials said.
With hopes for finding any additional survivors continuing to fade while uncertainty over the fate of dozens lingers on, the mood among the community has grown grimmer.
"This is going to get harder and harder," said Dan Rankin, mayor of nearby Darrington, as he choked back tears at a town hall meeting attended by hundreds of people on Thursday evening. "We need each other more and more."
Bernie Tamez, 39, said he was comfortable that officials were dealing with the community forthrightly, despite the dearth of tangible information.
"They're keeping us informed," said Tamez, a machinist who took the week off to volunteer in Darrington where he lives.
Turned away from helping at the pile, he has instead helped out in the community kitchen that has been feeding a few hundred people each night before the town hall meeting.
Residents who had escaped the slide marveled at their luck.
"We were driving on that exact stretch two weeks ago. We were right there," 45-year-old Larry Dwyer said as he watched his three sons wave signs ushering motorists toward a food drive at an Arlington market on a rainy Thursday evening. "That's why we're out here right now. It's a karma thing. When it's not you, you give."
Authorities were investigating the cause of the mudslide. The Washington State Department of Natural Resources said it would review recent forestry activities in the area to determine whether they might have been a factor.
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Darrington, Wash. and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Tom Brown and Dan Grebler)