21 confirmed dead as crews still at work in Wash. mudslide

A worker cuts a tree with a chainsaw next to a "PV" marking, which stands for "possible victim," Sunday, March 30, 2014, in the debris field of the massive landslide that struck the community of Oso, Wash. on Saturday, March 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
A worker cuts a tree with a chainsaw next to a "PV" marking, which stands for "possible victim," Sunday, March 30, 2014, in the debris field of the massive landslide that struck the community of Oso, Wash. on Saturday, March 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

DARRINGTON, Wash. (AP) — Crews have cleared a path through the muck and devastation wrought by Washington’s deadly mudslide, making the painstaking search for victims easier.

The makeshift road completed over the weekend links one side of the 300-acre debris field to the other. Crews have also been working to clear mud and debris from the highway, leaving piles of gooey muck, splintered wood and housing insulation on the sides of the road.

The number of confirmed dead in the March 22 slide increased from 18 to 21, said Jason Biermann, program manager at the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management.

Another four bodies were found Sunday, but they won’t be added to the official count until the medical examiner receives them. Biermann said 30 people remain missing.

Searchers have had to contend with treacherous conditions, including household chemicals, septic tanks, gasoline and propane containers. When rescuers and dogs leave the site, they are hosed off by hazardous materials crews.

“We’re worried about dysentery, we’re worried about tetanus, we’re worried about contamination,” said Lt. Richard Burke of the Bellevue Fire Department. “The last thing we want to do is take any of these contaminants out of here and take them into town.”

The slide dammed up the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River, causing water to pool up on the east side. The river cut a new channel through the mud, but rain has raised the water level nearly a foot, said Kris Rietmann, a spokeswoman for the team working on the eastern portion of the slide.

In at least one place, the water level got so high that it covered areas that have already been searched, said Tim Pierce, leader of Washington Task Force 1, a search-and-rescue team.

Searchers should get some relief soon. Conditions improved Sunday, and mainly dry weather is forecast Monday through Wednesday in western Washington.

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