(Recasts with new details about search and recovery of remains)
By Eric M. Johnson
ARLINGTON, Wash., March 28 (Reuters) - The death toll from a mudslide that has left 90 people missing in Washington state appeared certain to climb nearly a week after the disaster, as anguished relatives turned to the Internet and word of mouth for scarce scraps of new information.
At least 26 people were killed when a rain-soaked hillside collapsed without warning last Saturday, unleashing a towering wall of mud that flattened dozens of homes in a river valley near the rural town of Oso, about 55 miles (89 km) northeast of Seattle.
While fire officials directing search operations at the disaster site have spoken of making slow but steady progress in recovering remains of victims buried in the slide, the tally of the dead has changed little in recent days, even as the number of those listed as missing has held steady.
The lag appears related to a methodical protocol being followed by Snohomish County emergency management officials and medical examiners.
County authorities say coroners have so far examined and identified the remains of just 17 people, including an infant whose body was retrieved on Thursday, and they are the only ones counted so far in the official death toll.
Remains of nine more individuals were previously reported to have been located in the square-mile (2.6 square-km) heap of mud-caked debris and muck, but as of Friday they had been excluded from the formal tally of lives lost.
County officials have insisted on revising that list only as each set of remains goes through the painstaking process of being examined and identified by coroners, leaving the public mostly in the dark about the retrieval of more bodies.
The process has likely also been slowed by the condition of some of the remains, which according to rescue workers are not always being found intact.
News of additional remains being located and recovered has been trickling out to family members of the missing and dead through word-of-mouth and other channels, however, thanks to community members working side-by-side with rescue teams in the search for more victims.
CHURCHES AND FIRE STATIONS
Area churches and fire stations are also go-to venues for members of the community seeking updates, said Gail Moffett of Oso, who lives 2 miles from the disaster site and works at a hardware store in nearby Arlington.
"I go home and talk to the source, because it's family," she said of the community network, including locally based rescue workers, she has tapped into for information.
"They are all out there on the mudslide every day, going back and going back and going back, day after day after day, to make a difference and to help our people. And they just keep doing it and they come in at night and their butts dragging, covered in mud, and their faces are not the faces I knew last week," she said.
Authorities have also in some cases allowed victims' relatives onto the disaster site as the remains of loved ones are recovered, and a moment of silence is observed, as occurred when the body of the infant was extricated on Thursday.
In one tragic case, a volunteer member of the search team, Dayn Brunner, pulled the body of his own sister 36-year-old Summer Raffo, from the mud pile on Wednesday. She was driving through the area when the slide buried her in her car.
Brunner, 42, took a day off to grieve and rest, then returned to the debris field on Friday to resume the search for more victims.
An estimated 180 people lived in the path of the landslide. Now, nearly a week after the disaster, fears have grown that the final death toll could approach the 90 people still listed as missing or unaccounted for - a figure authorities arrived at on Wednesday after winnowing a much larger list by about half.
Authorities have said that some of those killed might never be found, and on Thursday braced the public for news - still yet to come - that the number of dead would increase substantially in the next 24 to 48 hours.
Authorities have so far publicly identified five dead, while withholding the names of others listed as dead or missing. But about 40 people have been identified on a local blog site as potential landslide victims, including several members of one family.
All of those discovered alive in the mud were rescued by helicopter within the first few hours after the landslide, and rescuers have found no further signs of life, officials said.
Volunteer Bob Michajla, 66, taking a break from work combing through debris and clearing a stretch of road in the disaster zone, said the search was entering a more difficult phase.
"They found the easy bodies in the first few days. The rest of them are probably buried. That's what I was told," said Michajla, his face and fingers caked in mud.
Local fire district chief Travis Hots said rain and wind sweeping the area on Friday was working against the round-the-clock search efforts. A flash flood alert was posted for the county, extending through the next three days.
With hopes for finding any additional survivors continuing to fade while uncertainty over the fate of dozens more lingers on, the mood among the community has grown grimmer.
"This is going to get harder and harder," said Dan Rankin, mayor of nearby Darrington, as he choked back tears at a town hall meeting attended by hundreds of people on Thursday evening. "We need each other more and more."
Bernie Tamez, 39, said he was comfortable that officials were dealing with the community forthrightly, despite the dearth of tangible information.
"They're keeping us informed," said Tamez, a machinist who took the week off to volunteer in Darrington where he lives.
Turned away from helping at the pile, he has instead helped out in the community kitchen that has been feeding a few hundred people each night before the town hall meeting.
Meanwhile, residents like 45-year-old Larry Dwyer who escaped the slide marveled at their luck.
"We were driving on that exact stretch two weeks ago. We were right there," Dwyer said as he watched his three sons wave signs ushering motorists toward a food drive at an Arlington market on a rainy Thursday evening. "That's why we're out here right now. It's a karma thing. When it's not you, you give."
Authorities were investigating the cause of the mudslide. The Washington State Department of Natural Resources said it would review recent forestry activities in the area to determine whether they might have been a factor. (Additional reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Darrington, Washington, and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Tom Brown, Dan Grebler and Lisa Shumaker)
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