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Dogs Most Effective Search Tool As Landslide Death Toll Mounts

Rescuers are employing high tech electronics to help locate buried victims in the Oso mudslide. But old fashioned tools have actually worked best according to local fire chief Travis Hots.

“In the last three days, the most effective tool has been dogs and just our bare hands and shovels uncovering people," he says. "The dogs are the ones that are pinpointing a particular area to look. We’re looking and that’s how we’re finding people.”

Unfortunately, Hots says there have been no survivors or signs of life detected since Saturday night. Cadaver dogs have joined the search dogs.

Snohomish County emergency management director John Pennington says some searchers are also carrying sensitive receivers to detect mobile phone signals.

“They’re trying to ping for cell phones for the purposes of essentially locating individuals in the debris," he says. "There are technologies that can further refine where that ping came from. I know that process is going on right now.”

Other technical rescue teams are armed with listening devices and small cameras to probe voids in the mudflow.

Local volunteers familiar with the landscape and skilled with chainsaws are helping what is now a massive emergency response.

The National Guard has arrived. A federal urban search and rescue team is on scene. Hovercraft skitter on water around the perimeter. FEMA communications trucks are parked in neighboring towns. Backhoes and bulldozers are clearing paths into the debris.

Frequent rain showers are making it challenging for both professional and volunteer responders to move across the square mile of soupy, slippery debris.

Hots has dark circles under his eyes after four nights of little sleep. But he promises the large number of families still awaiting word about missing loved ones, the search will continue – as he puts it – “on all eight cylinders” until everyone is accounted for.

On Tuesday, one volunteer rescue worker was injured while working at the landslide scene. The injury occurred when a small piece of debris was thrown up in a helicopter prop wash and struck him in the head.

About three miles down the road from the landslide is a small upholstery shop where Leila Hoffman works. Business is understandably slow right now, which leaves lots of time for her to think.

“It’s been kind of nerve-wracking," says Hoffman. "You can’t ever put it out of your mind because all day long the helicopters are going. Not that you should put it out of your mind at this point.”

Those search and rescue helicopters are flying to and from the square mile of mud and debris. Saturday’s slide crashed down on a rural neighborhood of fisherman’s cabins, farm houses and regular homes.

“My life goes on and you kind of feel guilty about it. If I were younger and stronger, I’d be up there volunteering — not that they need any more now.”

The official death toll from Saturday’s massive landslide near Oso, Wash., rose from 14 to 16 Tuesday night.

Emergency managers say they have located eight additional fatalities under the mud but will not add them to the total until the bodies are recovered. Dozens and dozens of people are still listed as missing or unaccounted for.

Copyright 2014 NWNews. To see more, visit

Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.