DARRINGTON – An increasingly high-tech search effort is under way for human remains within the massive deposits of mud, logs and other debris left behind by the March 22 collapse of a hillside along the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River.
Search teams are using a long-arm excavator to help probe through mud that reaches depths of up to 70 feet. Another excavator on the way will be mounted on pontoons to help probe watery areas, said Steve Harris, division supervisor for the east portion of the search.
A boat motoring in flooded areas is equipped with U.S. Geological Survey side-scan sonar that can scan the muck, generating images that could help searchers spot outlines of human remains, Harris said during a media briefing Tuesday morning.
“We are trying to use every type of tool that we can find, and think of,” said Harris. “And it’s amazing all the different agencies who say, ‘We have this that can do that,’ and we’re putting them to work the best we can.”
The searchers also have been bolstered by an improved understanding of collection points for debris. These locations may be far from the sites where homes once stood, but are likely to a trap human remains, some of which are partial, he explained.
And this week, as the water levels drop, the pace of the finds is quickening, with several reported by late morning Tuesday.
But Harris cautioned that “there is a potential” that some remains will not be found.
The search includes some volunteers from the Darrington area, but most are drawn from the ranks of government agencies and the Washington National Guard as well as paid contractors who work heavy equipment and chainsaws.
Harris did not have figures available on the cost of the search effort.
With state Highway 530 – the most direct route between Darrington and Arlington — shut down by the mudslide, there has been a major push to create an alternate route for emergency traffic, and an unpaved road that runs along a ridge is now open. But Highway 530 sustained severe damage, with some sections destroyed by the slide, and it is uncertain when it could be repaired.
“There are areas where the highway is completely gone,” Harris said. “There is a lot of fill, a lot of work that is going to be done. I don’t know what the time frame is for that. That’s a (state) Transportation Department question. From what I’ve seen, it’s going to take a long time.”
The death toll from the mudslide has risen to 27, according to the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office. The medical examiner on Monday released the names of 22 people still believed missing in the slide.