SEATTLE -- Three days after a huge landslide destroyed a small community in rural Washington state, authorities still had no firm idea how many people were missing, possibly buried in the tangled mess of mud, trees and debris. And the potential number keeps fluctuating wildly -- first it was 18, then 108, then 176.
The changing figure has added to the confusion of a rescue and recovery operation that has involved aircraft, heavy equipment, trained search crews, and desperate friends and family using chain saws and their bare hands to pick through the debris.
Why is the number changing so much?
Officials are compiling the list from calls from worried family members, friends and locals. Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington said the number of potential missing likely includes duplicate names as people phone in reports about the same person. Authorities are working through the list, being extra cautious before they make conclusions.
Are there really more than 170 deaths?
Almost certainly not. Pennington said "the 176, I believe very strongly is not a number we're going to see in fatalities. I believe it's going to drop dramatically."
Don't authorities know how many people lived in the community?
The information-gathering process has been complicated by the nature of the rural area 55 miles north of Seattle where the slide hit Saturday morning. Pennington said officials have determined it included 49 parcels containing some kind of structure -- including manufactured homes, a cabin and vacation properties. Not every structure was occupied full time. Some were only used sporadically. Complicating matters further is the fact that it's believed some nonresidents were working in the area and some victims may have been driving through the state highway that was also covered by mud.
Why is it taking crews so long to find more people?
The debris field is a huge, dangerous mess -- 15 feet thick in some places. "It's muddy, in areas it's like quicksand," said Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots. "One of the folks out there told me, 'Chief, sometimes it takes five minutes to walk 40 or 50 feet."' Searchers are also running into gasoline and septic discharge and dealing with ground that geologists warn remains unstable.
Will they find more survivors?
Authorities insist rescue operations are continuing, but as more time passes they concede that hope is fading. "Most of us in these communities do not believe we'll find anyone alive," Pennington said. "I'm a man of faith and I believe in miracles."