LOS ANGELES (AFP) - The number of people still missing after a monster US landslide dropped dramatically to 30 Saturday, as rescuers held a moment’s silence exactly one week after tragedy struck.
The number killed is believed to be at least 27 from the wall of mud and debris which crashed down onto the town of Oso in the state of Washington, although the official toll remains at 18.
The drop in missing from 90 to 30 offered a tiny cause for relief as an army of rescuers spent another day picking and wading through the square mile (2.5 square kilometre) blanket of mud.
Heavy rain made the efforts to find bodies painstakingly slow.
“The rain saturated a lot of the soil in the debris area... which slowed down the searching,” Jason Biermann of the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management told reporters in a daily briefing.
In a grisly turn, he said the task of counting fatalities was complicated because of the state of human remains left by a landslide that has been described by officials as a giant blender.
“Often they are making partial recoveries,” Mr Biermann said.
As well as 18 confirmed deaths, Mr Biermann said one other body has been located but not formally identified. At least eight other bodies are believed to have been located earlier in the week, making the expected death toll from the tragedy at least 27.
Officials are only including victims in the confirmed toll if they have been recovered and formally identified by the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office.
A total of 49 dwellings in the rural town were hit by the rush of mud, rocks and trees, which also destroyed part of a highway about 60 miles (95 kilometrrs) northeast of Seattle.
More than 200 rescue workers have been working in tough conditions for seven days. A few survivors were found immediately after the mudslide, but none since the day of the catastrophe.
Earlier Saturday, rescue workers and people across the northwestern Washington state observed a moment’s silence at 10:37 am, exactly a week after the landslide struck.
“I know that every Washingtonian holds in their heart the people of the Stillaguamish Valley and we all wish we could ease their pain,” said Washington Governor Jay Inslee.
Some heart-breaking stories have emerged.
One of the most moving is that of Natasha Huestis, whose four-month-old baby daughter Sanoah Violet and 45-year-old mother Christina Jefferds are both among the confirmed dead.
Ms Huestis had left her daughter with the infant’s grandmother, who was looking after the baby at her home – which was directly in the path of the massive landslide.
“Sanoah’s name is Hawaiian. My mom, she came up with Sanoah’s middle name, Violet,” she said. “Sanoah Violet. Her name means mist in the mountains. And you know, she’s in the mountains right now.”