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Unaccounted for number in Washington landslide plummets to 30

By Ralph Ellis, Michael Martinez and Chelsea J. Carter, CNN
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Sun March 30, 2014
President Obama speaks to first responders, recovery workers and community members on Tuesday, April 22, at the scene of the deadly landslide that devastated Oso, Washington, one month before. The landslide crossed the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River and caused multiple deaths and massive damage. President Obama speaks to first responders, recovery workers and community members on Tuesday, April 22, at the scene of the deadly landslide that devastated Oso, Washington, one month before. The landslide crossed the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River and caused multiple deaths and massive damage.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Number of missing, unaccounted for drops to 30 from 90; death toll at 18
  • Rescue teams bring in more dogs for search, including cadaver canines
  • Officials are worried about rain leading to river flooding
  • Locals recall what they were doing when the landslide struck a week ago

Darrington, Washington (CNN) -- The number of people missing or unaccounted for in Washington state's deadly landslide has dropped to 30 from 90, officials said Saturday.

The number of confirmed dead rose to 18 from 17, Jason Biermann, a program manager for the Sohomish County Department of Emergency Management, said Saturday evening at a news conference.

Another body was found in the debris field, but was not identified and therefore wasn't counted in the death toll, he said.

Emergency management officials had said all week they expected the number of unaccounted for people to drop dramatically as residents of Darrington and nearby Oso turned up.

"We expected that number to drop in part due to a combination of finding people who registered as safe and well and cross-referencing the list with confirmed identities of victims at the ME's [medical examiner's] office," Biermann said.

Biermann said the challenge of identifying victims is becoming more complicated as search operations continue.

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"The slide hit with such force that the rescuers are not finding full, intact bodies," he said.

On Sunday, a church in Oso plans to hold a service for the families of people lost in the landslide, he said.

A different kind of ceremony was held Saturday.

Residents and rescuers paused in the rain at the exact moment when a landslide forever changed their world a week ago.

That's when a mountain-sized torrent of mud killed at least 18 people.

In Saturday's moment of silence, officials eulogized the rural residents who lost their lives inside their homes or on the road when a hillside collapsed and obliterated everything in its square-mile path at 10:37 a.m. PT March 22.

"Our community is changed forevermore," Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin told 40 people outside the fire station, where the flag wavered at half-staff. "It's going to take a long time to heal."

Indeed, even rescue crews at the disaster zone stopped work in the mud and observed the short vigil, said Steve Mason, a Snohomish County fire battalion chief.

Meanwhile, rescuers brought in more dogs -- both rescue and cadaver canines -- to search for buried survivors or bodies.

Noting the stark reality of the ongoing search, Rankin said that Saturday's standstill of 30 seconds "is all the rest we're going to get."

"In our minds, we are in recovery mode. In our hearts, we are still in rescue mode," he added.

At groceries, pharmacies and communities centers in Snohomish County, residents stopped their activities and held the momentary vigil on a gray day that obscured the mountaintops.

About eight miles down the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River from Oso -- where the landslide occurred -- a store cashier bowed his head in silence. Outside his Food Pavilion store in Arlington, shoppers also stopped, huddled around a cart, and looked solemnly at the ground. After 20 seconds of silence, the shopping resumed.

Landslide search now compared to Katrina
Baby's cries heard under landslide debris

Back at Darrington, about 15 miles from Oso, residents used Saturday's solemnity to recall what they were doing when a piece of the Earth came crashing down.

Rankin was at a hardware store to buy screws for a weekend project. Then the credit card machines went down. Then came word of the landslide, with a home in its path.

Pastor Michael De Luca was having coffee with the local barber in his shop at the time.

"A woman came through the door and asked for a cell phone. She wanted to make a call. She said, 'I was following a car and a slide pushed it off the road,' " De Luca recounted.

That's how locals began to learn of the catastrophe 60 miles northeast of Seattle.

As residents honored the dead and the survivors, officials pressed ahead in their search for the missing.

While more than 100 rescuers labored in the rain and mud Saturday, officials were concerned about flooding in the nearby waterway, said Steven Harris, district supervisor for the landslide incident team.

"We are keeping an eye on the river," Harris said.

Helping rescuers Saturday were the additional search dogs from outside the area, but because of the rain, the animals worked only four-hour shifts to prevent hypothermia, Harris said.

"The big tool is dogs," Harris said of the search.

Crews were also building a secondary road to the mudslide area for safer access, Harris sad. Biermann said at the news conference that the road was completed but was only for use by people involved in the search and rescue.

CNN's Chelsea Carter, Dan Simon, Linda Hall and Paul Vercammen contributed from Washington. Greg Botelho, Matt Smith, Mariano Castillo, Gabe Ramirez, Ana Cabrera and Jason Hanna also contributed to this report. Ralph Ellis in Atlanta and Michael Martinez in Los Angeles reported and wrote.

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