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Washington mudslide official death toll at 17, unofficial numbers at 26

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The National Guard was called in to work along with dozens of local volunteers in North Western Washington this week to recover bodies entombed in a massive mud-covered grave caused by last Saturday’s horrific mudslide that swamped almost a square mile of landscape pulverizing structures; crumpling farm equipment and vehicles like they were tin cans.

Recovery is tremendously difficult when heavy equipment gets clogged with mud in the delicate search for bodies where shovels are often useless. A lot of the work has to be done by hand to move mud and mountains of debris to navigate through the gooey bog that continues to be drenched with rain daily.

According to a King5 News update Friday at 9:00a.m., Snohomish Fire Chief Travis Hots said the weather continues to be a deterrent in the seach, with record rainfall and high winds. He is also worried about fatigue of the rescuers.

Confusion on the death-toll numbers was explained by Hots as he reported the official number still stands at 17, with news outlets reporting an additional 9 unrecovered bodies, making 26 the unconfirmed total. The Snohomish Medical Examiner’s office is the final authority, said Hots, so official death numbers can only be released after they go through their internal process.

The list of 90 missing remains the same, so the number of official casualties is expected to rise sharply.

For almost 7 days volunteers and families of the missing have shown up every morning to help in the search, which includes specially trained dogs, miniature cameras and sophisticated listening devices.

Exhaustion and frustration have started to set in, but determination continues, with some still holding out optimism that someone could be found alive.

But hope fades with each body that has been recovered.

The brother of Summer Raffo, Dave Brunner, joined the search for her five days straight until her mangled car was finally found Wednesday 500 feet off the road she had been driving on when the wall of mud slammed into it.

It took an hour for workers to cut through the top of the car so Raffo’s body could be recovered.

"I reached around her upper torso and pulled her out. Two other guys were on her legs and they assisted pulling her out," Brunner said. He was finally able to say goodbye.

"And I did I had my moment. I got to say the words I wanted to say, I got to hold her. I got to hold her for my mom and I got to say the words that my mom wanted to say to her," Brunner was quoted in a King5 News report.

Brunner and his brothers found three other bodies during the search for Raffo.

The body of a four-month-old baby girl was found Thursday morning in the Oso area not far from where her grandmother’s body was recovered.

The family of little Sanoah Voilet Huestis, including her mother Natasha, great uncle Dale Peterson, and step-grandfather Seth Jefferds were away from the home on Saturday when the tragedy happened.

Each time a body is discovered all the first responders, family members and volunteers stand for a moment of silence.

"You see seasoned veterans in this business, they start to tear up, their eyes get glossy. And it's kind of their way of paying respects to these peoples' loved ones that have been lost," said Hots.

Meanwhile, communities from Arlington to Burlington have channeled collective efforts into providing comfort and support to grieving families and workers. They are collecting donations, food, water, medicine and other supplies for people displaced from their homes.

Gov. Jay Inslee sent a request to President Barack Obama Thursday for an expanded emergency declaration fund to allow businesses to recover costs imposed on them by the disaster.

The survival of 8 people, the rescue of a dog, horses and other livestock and saving a 4-year-old boy the first day of the slide after the rest of his family perished in the home have been the only highlights.

A number of factors were cited that may have contributed to the deadly landslide in a region that sits on 20,000 year old glacial remnants made up of sand and rocky soil. The factors highlighted include a history of similar events over past decades, a clear-cut logging encroachment that allegedly extended 300 feet beyond what was permitted above the slide area and climate change due to record-breaking rainfall in March that has been part of an increasing pattern.

The search will likely continue for months with the somber reality that some bodies may never be recovered.

RELATED REPORT:

Climate change contributed to deadly mudslide in unstable region of Washington

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