ARLINGTON, Washington (Reuters) - The number of people missing after a landslide sent a wall of mud crashing into dozens of rural Washington state homes dropped to 90 on Wednesday, as officials reported finding more bodies but acknowledged some victims' remains may never be recovered.
Four days after a rain-soaked hillside collapsed near the tiny town of Oso, cascading over a river and a road and into homes, a fire official said the death toll had risen to 25 people, including nine whose bodies remained in the debris.
Officials had earlier said additional remains had been found in the devastation zone about 55 miles northeast of Seattle on Wednesday, but declined to say how many until they had been removed and sent to a medical examiner's office.
As hope faded that any survivors might be plucked from the muck and debris that blanketed an area covering about one square mile (2.6 square km), residents of the stricken community and nearby towns braced for an expected rise in the casualty count.
"My son's best friend is out there, missing," said John Pugh, 47, a National Guardsman who lives in the neighbouring village of Darrington. "My daughter's maid-of-honour's parents are missing. It's raw. And it will be for a long time."
Asked whether he expected the death toll to rise significantly, Governor Jay Inslee told CNN: "Yes, I don't think anyone can reach any other conclusion."
"It's been very sad that we have not been able to find anyone living now for probably 36 or 48 hours," he said. "The most discouraging thing is we were hopeful that we would find folks who might be protected by a car or a structure, but the force of this landslide just defies imagination."
About 180 people were known to have lived in the path of the landslide, although not all would have been home at the time of the slide on Saturday, according to Snohomish County's emergency management director, John Pennington.
Authorities who whittled down a list of missing from about 176 people to 90 have said the victims could also include people from outside the community, such as construction workers or passing motorists, who were there at the time of the mudslide on Saturday morning.
The fate of up to roughly 35 more people not counted officially among the missing remained uncertain, Pennington said.
Late on Wednesday evening Brian McMahan, assistant fire chief of the community of Mukilteo, told some 250 people at a community meeting in nearby Darrington that one additional body had been found that day, bringing the known total to 25.
Eight more people survived the slide but were injured, including a 22-week-old baby rescued with his mother and listed in critical condition although he was improving. The mother and three other survivors also remained hospitalized.
SEARCHING WITH DOGS
About 200 search personnel, many wearing rain gear and hard hats, painstakingly combed through the disaster zone under cloudy skies on Wednesday, taking advantage of a break from Tuesday's rain showers.
White markers were placed at the edge of the gouged slope to help detect any further shifting of the hillside, and searchers used dogs and sophisticated equipment such as listening devices and cameras capable of probing voids in the debris.
Backhoes scooped up partial bucket loads of earth and spread the slurry-like soil on the ground where several searchers would sift through the mud looking for possible remains, scraps of clothing or other clues of someone who might be buried there.
A search dog scrambled back and forth over one spot where a Washington state police chaplain said a 3-month-old baby was thought to be missing. He said the infant's anguished relatives have returned to the site daily as part of a group of volunteers assisting in search efforts.
Snohomish County Battalion Fire Chief Steve Mason, directing part of the operation, said teams were making slow but steady progress in locating additional remains.
"There are finds going on continually. They are finding people now," he told reporters visiting the search site. "People are under logs, mixed in. It's a slow process."
Jan McClelland, a volunteer firefighter from Darrington who was among the first to arrive at the scene and has spent long days digging through the thick gray muck, conceded it was possible some bodies may end up forever entombed at the site.
"I'm fearful we won't find everyone," she said. "That's the reality of it."
The slide already ranks among the worst in the United States. In 1969, 150 people were killed in landslides and floods in Virginia, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
CRITICISM OVER CONSTRUCTION
County officials also started to address criticism for allowing new home construction in the area after a 2006 landslide in the same vicinity, which followed numerous reports detailing the risks of slides dating back to the 1950s.
A 1999 study by geologist Daniel Miller for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had warned of the potential for a "large catastrophic failure" in the area, about 55 miles northeast of Seattle.
"There's definitely a blame-game going on," Miller told Reuters. "I've always thought it's inappropriate to allow development in flood plains, in areas at risk of landslides, in part because of the danger to human life and also in part because when something happens, even if no one is hurt, public agencies end up coming in to make repairs."
Snohomish County's emergency management director, John Pennington, told reporters that local authorities had spent millions of dollars on work to reduce landslide risks in the area after the 2006 event. He suggested that while officials and residents were aware of vulnerability to unstable hill slopes, Saturday's tragedy came out of the blue.
We really did a great job of mitigating the potential for smaller slides to come in and impact the community," Pennington said. "So from 2006 to this point, the community did feel safe; they fully understood the risks."
But he also said: "People knew that this is a landslide-prone area. Sometimes big events just happen. Sometimes large events that nobody sees happen. And this event happened, and I want to find out why. I don't have those answers right now."
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Darrington, Washington, Bill Rigby in Seattle, Rick Wilking in Oso and Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Dan Grebler, Gunna Dickson and Ken Wills)