ARLINGTON, Wash. – The number of confirmed dead stood at 24 in the mile-wide mudslide that destroyed a street of houses in the bend of a river here, but was expected to go much higher Thursday even as the first bodies were to be flown out of the area.
As many as 90 people remain missing and unaccounted for, Snohomish County Emergency Management director John Pennington said.
The number dropped from 176 Wednesday, when crews were finally able to restore electricity, phone and Internet service to the tiny town of Darrington on the east side of the slide. It had been cut off since Sunday morning and many of those who fled there hadn't been able to report to friends and loved ones that they were OK.
Officials estimate about 180 people lived on Steelhead Drive, the street that wound along the bend in the North fork of the Stillaguamish River.
Missing-persons experts on Tuesday began to sort through the long list of names they have gathered. It is painstaking work, matching and cross-checking, Pennington said.
Hope that the list might shrink is dimming.
"I think we have to be logical here," Pennington said. "Unless you're in a jungle in South America, you know what happened here. By now, someone has reached out to them and said 'Hey, that's your home town. They're looking for you.' "
He said he doesn't expect many more people to call in to say they're fine. "If you're on this list of 90, you're on this list."
In addition to the missing or unaccounted-for list, there remain 35 people whose status is listed as "unknown."
"It could be as simple as 'John Doe, who lives on Steelhead Lane, we think he had a girlfriend Sally,' " Pennington said.
The 16 bodies recovered so far were to be flown out by helicopter and taken to the Snohomish County medical examiner, said Steve Westlake, chief of the county Emergency Management Operations Section.
The search for bodies is difficult, treacherous work. The soil around the area remains muddy and unstable. With Highway 530 covered under tons of rock and soil, teams are going in on back access roads.
On Wednesday, a truck carrying gravel to help stabilize the roads slid off into a ditch, blocking off access to the search site for several hours.
The scope and sheer power of the slide is difficult to imagine, said Snohomish County Executive John Lovick.
"Nothing in the world could have prepared me for what I saw, and I worked for 31 years as a state trooper," he said. "When I flew over the area on Sunday, I said you needed to see it to believe it. Now that I've seen it from the ground, I must tell you that I still can't believe what I saw."