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Published: Sunday March 30, 2014 MYT 10:55:22 AM
Updated: Sunday March 30, 2014 MYT 10:55:22 AM

Number of missing in U.S. mudslide drops to 30 as death toll rises

DARRINGTON, Washington (Reuters) - The number of people missing from a landslide that sent a wall of mud cascading over dozens of homes in Washington state dropped to 30 from 90 on Saturday, but the death toll continues to climb as another body was found in the muddy heap of debris.

One week after the catastrophe, the unofficial body count rose to 28. The official tally of those killed is now 18 based on bodies found, extricated and identified by medical examiners.

But with the grim news also came word that the number of missing fell dramatically as officials were able to account for dozens of people as "safe and well."

Rescue and recovery workers pushed through wind and rain on Saturday continuing to comb through debris left after the rain-soaked hillside gave way without warning and destroyed dozens of homes on the outskirts of the rural Washington town of Oso, northeast of Seattle.

"The number is so big and it's so negative. It's hard to grasp," said volunteer Bob Michajla, 66, who has been helping to search part of the debris field that covers a square-mile (2.6 square-km). "These are all friends and neighbours and family. Everybody knows everybody in this valley."

The process of identifying victims has been complicated by the fact that some bodies have not been found intact.

FEARING THE WORST

An estimated 180 people lived in the path of the landslide.

As families and friends wait for news of those still unaccounted for, many have turned to social media sites to mourn and share memories of those presumed lost. A memorial page includes pleas for information on many of the missing, as well as prayers, condolences and offers of help.

"I find it difficult to do anything other than try to get updates to see if any new survivors have been found," said 50-year-old Brenda Roberson of nearby Arlington.

The plight of the Spillers family has gotten much attention. Postings on memorial web pages say Billy Spillers, 30, was at home with his four children when the hillside came down on their home.

Four-year-old Jacob Spillers was pulled out alive but his sister Kaylee, 5, was found dead. Billy and his two other children are still unaccounted for. The mother was not at home and survived.

Linda McPherson, 69, a librarian, died as her husband was able to dig himself out, according to the Snohomish County Landslide Victims Memorial Page on Facebook, while a 4-month-old girl and her grandmother were among those who perished.

NO SIGNS OF LIFE

No one has been pulled alive from the rubble since the day the landslide hit, when at least eight people were injured but survived. Rescuers have found no signs of life since then.

Lifelong Darrington resident Nolan Meece, 19, a recent high school graduate and frequent presence at community meetings about the slide, said he was among the first on the pile, arriving within an hour of the disaster.

"I was out there with my hands digging through all that mud," he said, adding that when he first arrived he heard survivors calling out but that those on the scene could not save them. "The ones I seen did not survive," he said.

The recovery operation has shown no signs of letting up, and heavy equipment operators were working to complete a rudimentary service road for emergency workers connecting the two sides of Highway 530, which was washed out by the slide.

Ron Brown, a Snohomish County official involved in search-and-rescue operations, said the debris field may end up being the final resting place for some victims, who may be buried so thoroughly they cannot be found.

"That's going to be hallowed ground out there," he said.

John Farmer, 52, who lives east of the slide site, suggested at a community meeting on Friday that the site should never be rebuilt but turned into a park or other place of remembrance.

"A place where we can remember our loved ones, our neighbours, our families, our friends," Farmer said.

(Additional reporting by Bryan Cohen in Arlington, Washington; Carey Gillam in Kansas City; and Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Carey Gillam and Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, James Dalgleish and Gunna Dickson)

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