DARRINGTON, Wash. — 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 in the debris some 55 miles northeast of Seattle.
Authorities on Wednesday reduced to number of people missing to 90. That number had been fluctuating — at one point reaching as high as 220 — but authorities were able to verify that dozens of people once reported missing had been located, Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington said.
Besides the 90 confirmed missing, authorities are looking into a list of 35 people who may or may not have been in the area at the time of the slide, Pennington said.
No victims were recovered Wednesday, leaving the official death toll at 16, with an additional eight bodies located but not recovered, he said. Authorities said they expected to update the official toll Thursday morning.
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.
Other survivors began to grow impatient Wednesday that they weren’t allowed to return to the sites of their homes to search for their valuables and keepsakes.
“This isn’t right. All of us who are still alive need to have access and find what we can of our lives,” said Robin Youngblood, who said her son-in-law was turned away from the slide site.
As families grieved, officials were pressed again Wednesday about multiple reports from years ago that showed the potential for catastrophic landslides in the area.
Pennington said authorities took steps to mitigate risks and warn people of potential dangers, especially after a 2006 landslide in the area. But the sheer size of this disaster was overwhelming.
“It haunts me,” a sometimes-emotional Pennington told reporters. “I think we did what we could do. Sometimes large slides happen.”
Massingale said he’s grateful that his daughter, Natasha Huestis, survived the slide. She had gone to Arlington that morning and left her baby with her mother, Christina Jefferds. Her husband Seth, a volunteer firefighter, was also away at the time.
“She didn’t suffer,” Massingale said after he was told about Christina’s death.
Massingale said he would miss his first grandchild, a sweet, pretty and smiley child.
“It’s stressful to think about,” he said. “A little baby that hasn’t gotten a start yet in life. It’s too much.”