Officials say death toll in Oso mudslide to go up substantially

DARRINGTON, Wash. - The death toll is expected to rise considerably within the next two days as the Snohomish County Medical Examiner's Office catches up with the recovery effort, Snohomish County District 21 Fire Chief Travis Hots said Thursday.

Sixteen bodies have been recovered, but officials say at least nine more had been found as of Wednesday night. The medical examiner's office so far has identified one victim, 45-year-old Christina Jefferds.

"In the next 24 to 48 hours, as the medical examiner catches up with their work, you're going to see these numbers increase substantially," Hots said.

There are 90 people confirmed missing, with another 35 who authorities are unsure were in the area when a hillside collapsed Saturday morning 55 miles northeast of Seattle.

Hope of a miracle discovery of a survivor has faded as the search entered its sixth day Thursday, but Hots said crews are going to exhaust all options in the effort to find somebody alive in the devastation.

"My heart is telling me I'm not giving up yet," he said. "If we find just one more person alive, it's all worth it to me."

Search and rescue teams started mobilizing well before dawn and as the sun rose, there was more bad news with dark skies and the real chance for rain.

"It's going to be a difficult day," Hots said.

Snohomish County Public Works Director Steve Thompson said despite the rain the slide stable for now but they are watching it. "We believe it's safe but if it starts to move we'll pull the crews out," Thompson said.

For now, crews stay in; they want to be there, but at some point, Hots said they will start bringing in some of the many, many search and rescue groups who've volunteered from across the country to help out.

Hots said you really can't fathom the scope from watching video or looking at pictures from the scene. He said you have to see it, which is what he did Wednesday to really connect with those out there working.

"There are so many different dynamics out there," Hots said. "You've got clay balls that are the size of ambulances that came down that hill that smashed everything that they came in contact with."

Search dogs easily become fatigued trying to track a scent, he said, since it doesn't rise directly above the body. Hots said it may emerge through the muck and debris 30, 40, 50 feet away from its source. So crews use long rods to poke through the mud to help the dogs zero in on it.

Hots said they found someone in a car Wednesday pushed a good 200 yards off the highway. Even with those grim discoveries, the chief said his heart won't let him give up yet.