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Landslide search: 'I don't think anything could prepare you'

By Matt Smith, CNN
updated 1:11 AM EDT, Fri March 28, 2014
  • NEW: Official death toll rises to 17, officials say
  • That figure should rise "very much" Friday, official says
  • Houses "look like they've been put in a blender," fire commander says
  • Rains are possible, if not likely, in the area for the next week -- at least

(CNN) -- Slogging through sometimes waist-deep mud, rescuers returned to the "unreal" scene of a deadly Cascade Mountain landslide Thursday with the grim expectation that more bodies waited underneath them.

Later that day, medical examiners added one more death to the official toll, bringing it to 17.

Saturday's collapse dragged several homes downhill with it, scattering their contents among hundreds of acres of earth and smashed trees.

"Anything that anyone would have in a neighborhood is now strewn out here," said Steve Mason, a Snohomish County fire battalion chief. "... Some (houses) look like they've been put in a blender and dropped on the ground, so you have basically a big pile of debris."

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The landslide near Oso, about 60 miles northeast of Seattle, has turned many lives upside down and cost far too many as well.

District Chief Travis Hots said that at least seven more bodies that have been found won't be added to the count until medical examiners can identify them.

"That number is going to likely change very, very much (Friday) morning," Hots said.

About 90 remained unaccounted for Thursday as rescuers dug into the ground with chainsaws, pumps and their hands in hopes of finding survivors -- or least bringing solace to family members by finding remains. That figure was the same as it was on Wednesday, though it, too, could change.

"Sometimes it takes several hours to get somebody out of an area," Hots said. When a body is extracted, "You can almost hear a pin drop out there. You see seasoned veterans in this business, they start to tear up. Their eyes get glossy."

No survivors have been found for days, but this still isn't a recovery operation. Rescuers are using small excavators, shovels and their hands -- not heavy machinery -- in areas where a survivor could be.

"As far as I'm concerned, we're still in rescue mode," Hots said Thursday evening. "I haven't lost hope yet ... That chance is very slim, but we haven't given up yet."

While some families cling to that hope, others -- like Rae Smith, whose daughter Summer Raffo was driving through the area when the slide hit -- are in mourning.

"My heart is broken. It's broken," Rae Smith said.

Pointing out homes on a map, volunteer rescuer Peter Selvig noted the seemingly random nature of the fatalities.

"This guy lived and his wife died ... we were on the school board together for about 30 years," Selvig said.

More rain made the mud worse Thursday, slowing the search, rescuers reported.

Senior Airman Charlotte Gibson -- part of an Air National Guard squadron assisting the search -- said rescuers "fall in about waist-deep in some areas," knee-deep in others.

"Just walking through it, it's almost impossible," Gibson said.

And as bad as the conditions are, the scale of the devastation is worse. Master Sgt. Chris Martin told reporters, "I don't think anything could prepare you for what you see out there."

Workers worked Thursday to build an east-west emergency road to reconnect both sides of the landslide, along with pathways of plywood and logs to make it easier to get people and equipment into the search zone. Washington State Patrol spokesman Bob Calkins said those crews and those looking for victims had a productive day Thursday.

"The rescuers and the road-builders seem to be hitting their stride now," said Calkins. "We're several days into this, they are starting to get a rhythm."

That doesn't mean they're close to done, or that the job is easy. Mason noted that the mud also holds the remains of septic systems, requiring searchers to wash thoroughly at the end of their shifts. And the collapse cut off the Stillaguamish River, causing the water to back up into what's now a small lake, he said.

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"You have homes on this side that are now islands," he said. On another side, "Cars are under water."

The area affected in the most recent calamity has been hit before, in 1951, 1967, 1988 and 2006. Daniel Miller, a geomorphologist who co-wrote a report in 1999 for the Army Corps of Engineers that looked at options to reduce sediments from area landslides, said that none of these events resulted in deaths, though at least the most recent one damaged houses.

This history, along with erosion from Stillaguamish River and worries about overlogging, prompted some mitigation and other efforts. A 2010 plan identified the area swept away as one of several "hot spots," John Pennington, Snohomish County's emergency management director, told reporters Wednesday.

The county had been saturated by "amazing" rains for weeks on end that made the ground even less stable, Pennington added. Then there was a small, recent earthquake that may or may not have shaken things up more.

But he said no one anticipated an event of the scale of what happened Saturday morning: "Sometimes, big events just happen." And he said residents knew the area was "landslide-prone" -- an assertion one of them challenged.

"Nobody ever told us that there were geology reports," Robin Youngblood told CNN's Anderson Cooper. "... This is criminal, as far as I'm concerned."

Determining whether the human toll from this disaster could have been abated is a key question, but one best answered another day, Gov. Jay Inslee has said. For now, the focus is on the ground -- and in the air -- scouring through the rubble.

And once again, Mother Nature is making things complicated. While Snohomish County reported late Thursday afternoon that water levels on one side of the slide had fallen two feet -- a "big help for rescuers," the county tweeted -- there's the reality of yet more rain and all the perils and complications that brings.

The National Weather Service's forecast calls for more rain Friday and beyond; in fact, there's a chance if not an all but guarantee of showers for the next full week, at least.

For that reason, rescuers are keeping an eye on the weather even as they sift through silt, wood and rubble, according to Snohomish County Public Works Director Steve Thompson.

"Right now there's no risk of further slides, but we're watching the rain," Thompson said.

CNN's Greg Botelho, Gabe Ramirez and Ana Cabrera contributed to this report.

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