By Jonathan Kaminsky
DARRINGTON, Washington (Reuters) – Rescue teams on Thursday clawed through the moon-like surface left by a massive mudslide in Washington state that killed at least 25 people, searching for those still missing, and the community prayed for “one little miracle.”
As the death toll rose from the slide last weekend that sent mud crashing into dozens of homes near the tiny town of Oso, community members gathered Wednesday evening for a prayer vigil for the missing, a number that has dropped to 90.
A rainy forecast for Thursday dimmed prospects on the sixth day of searching after a rain-soaked mountainside gave way on Saturday morning. The slide cascaded over a river and a road into homes, blanketing about a square mile in muck and debris.
PHOTOS: Oso mudslide
“We know and most of us, I think, are accepting that many of our people are not going to make it,” Megan Fanning, 41, said at the prayer vigil in Darrington, not far from Oso.
“But please, we need a miracle. Just one. One little miracle would be wonderful,” she said. The community college student noted that the son of a close friend, 14-year-old Denver Harris, remained among the missing.
Late on Wednesday, rescue crews found another body, raising the death toll by one to 25.
The tally pushed the Oso mudslide into the history books, said Josef Dufek, a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology who studies natural cataclysms. He pointed to the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington, which killed 57 people and a 1969 landslide in Nelson County, Virginia, which killed 150 people.
Emergency crews have used dogs, small cameras and sophisticated listening devices in the hunt for buried bodies as other workers removed debris by hand.
The deeply traumatized people of the area rallied round to comfort the bereaved and support rescue crews.
Stores in nearby Arlington put up hand-painted signs calling for solidarity and donations, Boy Scouts collected food outside a market, and a bowling league offered tournament prize money to relief efforts.
“This is a very strong community. … We all stick together,” said 25-year-old Jamie Olsen as her husband and about 40 people in Darrington sorted water, food, diapers and other supplies for families forced out of their homes.
Construction worker Steve Findley cooked breakfast for dozens of residents inside an Arlington middle school that the American Red Cross had transformed into a temporary shelter.
“All the people I know are gone,” he said.
President Barack Obama has signed an emergency declaration ordering U.S. government assistance to supplement state and local relief efforts. A local disaster relief account had nearly $50,000 in it by Thursday.
Authorities whittled down the list of the missing from about 176 people to 90 and said the victims could also include people from outside the community about 55 miles northeast of Seattle, such as construction workers or passing motorists.
Eight more people survived the slide but were injured, including a 22-week-old baby rescued with his mother. The baby was listed in critical condition but was improving. The mother and three other survivors also remained hospitalized.
Asked whether he expected the death toll to rise significantly, Washington state Governor Jay Inslee told CNN: “Yes, I don’t think anyone can reach any other conclusion.”
Jan McClelland, a volunteer firefighter from Darrington who was among the first to arrive at the scene, conceded it was possible some bodies may end up forever entombed at the site.
“I’m fearful we won’t find everyone,” she said. “That’s the reality of it.”
(The story corrects that slide was near Oso, not in the town, in 2nd paragraph.)
(Additional reporting by Bryan Cohen in Arlington, Wash., Bill Rigby in Seattle and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Writing by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)