OSO, Wash. (USA TODAY) — Silence blanketed this stricken community at precisely 10:37 a.m. Saturday, marking the moment one week ago today when a crushing wall of mud turned this bucolic outpost into an unimaginable nightmare.
The grinding work of countless searchers stopped as, in a scene reminiscent of the cleanup at Ground Zero after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York, men and women took off their hardhats and saluted an American flag — hung from a tree at half-staff — that had been found in the rubble.
The only sound was that of raindrops. Then the agonizing work resumed.
"Today, we've been at this for seven days," said Steve Mason, operation section chief for the Northwest Incident Management Team. "At this point, everybody is tired. There's people out here who you can't get to go home, they're looking for loved ones. ...There's a lot of stress out there. We are all tired."
Those continuing to search for bodies in the gruesome tangle of dirt, trees and the detritus of houses were hampered by the incessant rain, which in the past few days has added an inch of precipitation to the scene of one of the worst natural disasters in Washington state history and increased the risk of another slide. Geologists are on location monitoring conditions in case workers need to clear the area.
The death toll rose late Saturday from 17 to 18, with one additional and as yet unidentified body found in the debris field. While officials acknowledge finding at least 26 bodies so far, the official death toll stands at 18 because until the Snohomish County Medical Examiner's office is able to identify the bodies, they cannot be added to the official list. Officials also said that the the number of people unaccounted for stood at 30, and was expected to drop.
Rain and winds Friday meant helicopters could not get into the slide site to remove bodies that were found and transport them to the examiner's office.
The list of those who died will be updated "eventually," but it's going to stay "in the medical examiner's office until we're completely comfortable with it," Snohomish County Executive Director Gary Haakenson said at a news briefing Friday night.
"The crews are finding bodies in the field. It's a very slow process. It was miserable to begin with, and as you all know, it's rained heavily the past few days," he said.
"I cannot possibly tell you how this will end and when, or if, they'll find more bodies," Haakenson said. "We always want to hold out hope but I think we have to at some point expect the worst."
The state's Department of Ecology said Saturday that it considered the site contaminated, due to the array of chemicals increasingly being found by search crews and their dogs. These include propane and acetylene tanks, household drain cleaners and paint thinners. Another potential issue are the many septic systems that lie buried under the homes that were wiped out in the slide.
Workers Saturday could be seen with countless black plastic bags, which Mason said were for personal belongings that would be shipped elsewhere to be decontaminated, sorted and hopefully returned to their owners.
"What we found out here is everything from pictures to gun safes. Wallets. People's ATVs, anything that you would have at your house," Mason said.
At one white tent set up on at the edge of Highway 530, hundreds of photos — some muddy, others unmarked — sat waiting to be tagged with labels. Houses have been found in different states of destruction, from an intact two-story home that was filled with mud to others that looked as if they'd been "picked up, put in a blender and dropped," befitting the magnitude of this geologic cataclysm.
On the morning of March 22, an enormous piece of 600-foot Skaglund Hill sloughed off in a landslide. An estimated 15 million cubic yards of dirt, rocks and vegetation thundered across the north fork of the Stillaguamish River, obliterating Steelhead Drive and 49 homes. The slide continued across Highway 530, the main connection to the town of Darrington, about 20 miles east.
Close to 300 people are now searching the area for bodies, many doing so in waist-deep mud. As teams cycle off the search for rest, they are hosed down to remove potentially hazardous material from their boots and legs.
To the side of the slide area is a series of open canopies where searchers can get food and drink, or talk with waiting chaplains. A therapy dog, a retriever/beagle mix, was brought in to help comfort people in traumatic situations, Mason said.
As work at the site goes on, volunteers and helpers are pouring into Arlington, the town 11 miles to the west of Steelhead Drive. It is the main entry point for those coming from Interstate 5.
Hotels are full and turning away people who want to help. Officials are pleading that no more food be brought to the firehouses.
"The best thing to donate is cash. We've got enough clothing and food dropped off," said Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots.
People have "lost their entire families. There are funerals that will need to be paid for. They need to rebuild. I'm pleading with you to continue to give support to them and donate," he said.
Sales of "Oso Strong" T-shirts have so far raised $25,000, KING-TV reported.
Locals are looking to see what's specifically needed. Marlyn Kirkpatrick manages the Quality Inn in Arlington, Wash., and saw on the news that the men and women doing the searching were caked in mud.
What they needed, she thought, was shampoo, soap and towels, something she and her colleagues at the towns' other hotels and motel have in abundance.
"I started calling people last night, asking, 'Hey, do you guys have any extra towels, any extra soap?' "
She planned to deliver donations Friday night after work. "It's amazing how people just took action right away," she said.
Marco della Cava reported from San Francisco. Pool reporting: Ian Lovett, The New York Times