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Residents, survivors hold moment of silence for Washington landslide victims

Posted at 10:05 PM, Mar 29, 2014
and last updated 2014-03-29 22:05:45-04

DARRINGTON, Washington (CNN) -- Up and down a remote valley of Washington state, residents and rescuers paused in the rain Saturday at the exact moment when a landslide forever changed their world a week ago.

That's when a mountain-sized torrent of mud killed at least 17 people. As of Saturday, the death toll has risen by one, leaving the count as of now to be 18 dead.

In Saturday's moment of silence, officials eulogized the rural residents of Darrington and nearby Oso who lost their lives inside their homes or on the road when a hillside collapsed and obliterated everything in its square-mile path at 10:37 a.m. PT March 22.

"Our community is changed forevermore," Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin told 40 people outside the fire station, where the flag wavered at half-staff. "It's going to take a long time to heal."

Indeed, even rescue crews at the disaster zone stopped work in the mud and observed the short vigil, said Steve Mason, a Snohomish County fire battalion chief.

Meanwhile, to help their hunt in the rain Saturday, the rescuers brought in more dogs -- both rescue and cadaver canines -- to search for buried survivors or bodies. About 90 people are unaccounted for.

Noting the stark reality of the ongoing search, Rankin said that Saturday's standstill of 30 seconds "is all the rest we're going to get."

"In our minds, we are in recovery mode. In our hearts, we are still in rescue mode," he added.

At groceries, pharmacies and communities centers in Snohomish County, residents stopped their activities and held the momentary vigil on a gray day that obscured the mountaintops.

About eight miles down the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River from Oso -- where the landslide occurred -- a store cashier bowed his head in silence. Outside his Food Pavilion store in Arlington, shoppers also stopped, huddled around a cart, and looked solemnly at the ground. After 20 seconds of silence, the shopping resumed.

Back at Darrington, about 15 miles from Oso, residents used Saturday's solemnity to recall what they were doing when a piece of the Earth came crashing down.

Rankin was at a hardware store to buy screws for a weekend project. Then the credit card machines went down. Then came word of the landslide, with a home in its path.

Pastor Michael De Luca was having coffee with the local barber in his shop at the time.

"A woman came through the door and asked for a cell phone. She wanted to make a call. She said, 'I was following a car and a slide pushed it off the road,' " De Luca recounted.

That's how locals began to learn of the catastrophe 60 miles northeast of Seattle.

As residents honored the dead and the survivors, officials pressed ahead in their search for the missing.

While more than 100 rescuers labored in the rain and mud Saturday, officials were concerned about flooding in the nearby waterway, said Steven Harris, district supervisor for the landslide incident team.

"We are keeping an eye on the river," Harris said.

Helping rescuers Saturday were the additional search dogs from outside the area, but because of the rain, the animals worked only four-hour shifts to prevent hypothermia, Harris said.

"The big tool is dogs," Harris said of the search.

Crews were also building a secondary road to the mudslide area for safer access, Harris sad.

A forecast of continuing rain Saturday was expected to compound the slow movements of rescue workers, who are laboring in chest-high mud and must negotiate around propane tanks, septic tanks and other debris in the disaster zone.

"Morning everyone," Snohomish County officials posted on their Twitter page. "We're expecting heavy rain this morning near ... slide site. Could be challenging for ground teams, air operations."

Snohomish County Executive Director Gary Haakenson said Friday evening that the official death toll is 17, which is the same number as had been given earlier in the day. Officials had earlier indicated they would announce a new figure on Friday, but that announcement was never made as the county medical examiner's office continued processing its findings.

CNN's Chelsea Carter, Dan Simon, Linda Hall and Paul Vercammen contributed from Washington. Greg Botelho, Matt Smith, Mariano Castillo, Gabe Ramirez, Ana Cabrera and Jason Hanna also contributed to this report. Michael Martinez wrote and reported from Los Angeles.