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Landslide death toll hits 27, with 22 missing

As searchers continued to scour piles of debris caused by the landslide that swept down a mountainside more than a week ago in western Washington, officials said today that the death toll had risen to 27, with 22 other people still missing.

The Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office said that 19 of the 27 dead had been identified. The latest victim identified was Brandy L. Ward, 58, of Arlington, Wash., who like the others died from blunt force injuries.

All of the confirmed dead as well as those listed as missing lived in the landslide area. On the list of missing, at least 16 of the 22 once lived on Steelhead Drive in Oso, which was in the direct path of the slide, and is now buried and robbed of any landmark or sign by which one might even find it.

The March 22 landslide, which carried trees and houses along its path, covered portions of State Route 530, the highway that connects the Oso community and Arlington — along with any vehicles that might have been traveling on that section of roadway at the time.

After several days of near-constant rain in the area, searchers have been buoyed by improved weather conditions during the past day or so, officials said. The heavy rains caused additional flooding and made the thick mud even softer, creating difficult and dangerous conditions. Today, workers were trying to improve the flow of the Stillaguamish River through the landslide to ease flooding as they continued recovering bodies.

“The greatest challenge is working in areas with standing water,” Gary Haakenson, executive director of Snohomish County, said in a statement. “Dogs have indicated there are human remains in areas where there is standing water, so in addition to the good weather drying out the area, water is being pumped out.”

While the authorities said dogs working at the site are able to detect human remains as deep as 10 feet below the surface, the mud and debris is as deep as 75 feet in some places.

Haakenson said the number of people searching the one-mile square slide area had dropped significantly from a high last week of more than 200. Additional search-and-rescue personnel have been requested.

“We want to do all we can to find them and give some closure to their families,” Haakenson said.

The list of victims who have been identified so far range in age from 4-month-old Sonoah Heustis of Arlington to Lewis F. Vandenburg, 71, who also lived in Arlington.

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