Washington Mudslide Update: All 41 Victims Identified

April 23, 2014

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

A view over Oso, Wash. from Marine One helicopter during President Obama's visit.

The first steps of closure can now begin for families devastated by a mudslide nearly one month ago in Oso, Wash. The Snohomish County Medical Examiner's Office has confirmed all 41 victims have been positively identified.

(MORE: Here's How You Can Help the Victims of This Disaster)

Below are some facts and observations about the mudslide situation the weeks-long recovery effort.

How Are the Bodies Processed?

When bodies or remains are found in the mudslide area, crews dig them out and they are flown by helicopter to a nearby landing pad where they are readied to move to the medical examiner's office in Everett, about 30 miles from the scene. Once there, the bodies are moved to a tented area for decontamination, where they are cleaned in warm water. From there they are moved to the autopsy room where examiners take fingerprints, look for signs of dental work and identifying marks such as tattoos. When that work is complete, remains are moved to a refrigerated area where they stay until funeral homes make arrangements for burial or cremation.

Why Does It Take So Long to Identify Bodies?

The process for identifying remains, some of which are partial, is careful work, especially when trauma is involved, Thiersch said.

"This isn't going into a room and saying, 'This is him,'" he said.

Efforts to identify using dental work, fingerprints or tattoos, can take time and if that doesn't work, officials turn to DNA testing. But that works best in cases in which a close family member can give a sample for comparison. They've only needed to use DNA testing to identify one of the slide victims. At the same time, detectives are working to help determine identities by using information from families, social media accounts and belongings from the site.

(MORE: 5 Reasons the West Is More Vulnerable to Mudslides)

How Many People Are Working There? What Do They Do?

The regular staff of about 12 at the Snohomish County Medical Examiner's office has been supported with dozens of professionals from King, Pierce, Skagit and Kitsap counties and members of the Air National Guard. Medical examiners are working with pathologists, dentists and medical investigators to clean bodies, take fingerprints, and note tattoos or other distinguishing features. Detectives and other professionals do online research and call families to determine the identities of the victims.

(MORE: California Dad Prepares for a Tsunami)

How Do Workers Cope in These Difficult Situations?

People working at the medical examiner's office are doing everything from calling family members to cleaning bodies and the stress takes a toll. On Wednesday, a therapy dog named Paddington comforted members of the Air National Guard and medical investigators.

A team of county mental health workers was expected to visit the office later this week to meet with workers one-on-one.

Medical examiner's office deputy director Dennis Peterson said staff has been so dedicated to the work that he's had to "kick them out" to force them to rest.

Financial Costs

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee says the mudslide caused about $10 million in damage to homes destroyed in the slide area and their contents. He estimates further costs of $32.1 million for search and recovery efforts, and to remove all the debris. But he says the costs could go higher.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report

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