Oso mudslide's death toll, number of missing unchanged

Snohomish County Executive John Lovick, left, looks on as Gary Haakenson, the county
Snohomish County Executive John Lovick, left, looks on as Gary Haakenson, the county's executive director on public safety issues, explains to the news media in Arlington on March 28 how the death tolls from the Oso mudslide are determined.
— image credit: Kirk Boxleitner

ARLINGTON — The official death toll of the March 22 Oso mudslide is holding steady at 17 as of March 28, according to county officials who took the time to explain exactly how those death tolls are determined.

Gary Haakenson, the county's executive director on public safety issues, took over the task of briefing the news media on March 28 from Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots and John Pennington, director of the county's Department of Emergency Management, whom Haakenson thanked in absentia, and asserted had earned a break from their disaster-related duties.

"When a victim is found out in the field, their position is marked for a helicopter pickup," Haakenson said on March 28. "The helicopter will extract that victim to the holding area, and place them in a truck that's provided by the National Guard. As you may have heard today, the helicopters can't fly all the time, which hinders the picking-up of victims out in the field. At night, the victims are transported to the Medical Examiner's office in Everett. Autopsies are performed, and the process of identification takes place, if possible. The identification process has been very, very challenging. Once identified, we send a chaplain to the family, to notify them of our finding, and after that takes place, a Medical Examiner's staff person also calls the victim's family, to arrange for a funeral home. Then, and only then, do we send out a press release identifying that particular victim."

Haakenson expressed his frustration with the number of deaths being "a moving target" over the course of the preceding six days, and declared that the victim count should be announced only by the Medical Examiner's office, and only once a day, so that everyone is operating based on the same information. As such, Haakenson presented the new plan for such notifications — every day at 4:30 p.m., the Medical Examiner's office will give the victim count to the Incident Command Center in Arlington, who will in turn pass that information along to the news media in attendance at the briefing area in Haller Park at 6 p.m.

"That will be the only announcement, on a daily basis, of the victim count in the Medical Examiner's office," Haakenson said on March 28. "Yesterday afternoon at this time, the total was 14, as you may have seen in a press release overnight. Three victims were brought into the ME's office overnight, bringing the total to 17. This morning, the total was still 17, and that is your total for today. The total is still 17. That's the official number from the Medical Examiner's office. That's the only number that we will be giving out."

One more victim was located in the debris field, but Haakenson stipulated that victim would not be included in the total death toll until the body reaches the Medical Examiner's office.

"The Medical Examiner's office has contacted every family member that could possibly have a victim, and we have explained to them this process," Haakenson said. "They understand. The Medical Examiner's office has also gathered any identification notes from those family members to help us with the ID process. The National Guard, Skagit County and King County have added staff to our Medical Examiner's office, along with our dedicated employees, and they are all working in a very, very difficult environment, and I might add, they are caught up."

Haakenson voiced his concern for the families affected by the slide, as well as his appreciation to what he estimated to be nearly 1,000 people "taking part in the process in the field," from the Emergency Operations Centers, to Arlington and Darrington.

Snohomish County Executive John Lovick confirmed that the reported number of missing and unaccounted for people stands at 90.

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