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After almost a week buried under water and flowing mud, victims of the Washington state landslide are becoming harder to identify, making it even tougher for authorities to notify anguished families whether their loved ones are dead.
One more body was found in a debris field Friday, said Gary Haakenson, executive director for public safety in Snohomish County, where the enormous wall of mud washed over an area near the towns of Oso and Darrington last Saturday.
But because the body hadn't arrived at the medical examiner's office, he or she wasn't included among the number of confirmed victims, which remained stuck at 17, Haakenson said.
And 90 other people remain missing or unaccounted for as hundreds of rescue workers tramp through the mud and rain looking for them.
At a news conference Friday night in Arlington, a nearby town that's serving as a staging area for rescue and recovery efforts, Haakenson gave a step-by-step account of the grim process that's being followed to alert families of a relative's fate.
When a victim is found, his or her position is marked for pickup by a helicopter. The body is taken to a holding center and placed in a National Guard truck.
Each night, any bodies are driven to the medical examiner's office for autopsies, and examiners try to identify them — something he said "has been very, very challenging."
If an identity is confirmed, a chaplain is sent to notify the family. Someone from the medical examiner's office calls soon after to arrange the funeral.
Only then is the victim publicly identified, Haakenson said.
Complicating the process is the heavy rain that has followed the mudslide, which is expected to continue until at least Monday.
"It was miserable to begin with, and as you know, it's rained heavily the last few days," Haakenson said, explaining why the processing seemed to be moving so slowly.
"I cannot tell you how long it will take," he said.