Alaska landslide: Ground Slows Body Recovery

Crews searching for the body of the last man believed buried Tuesday by a landslide in a coastal Alaska town sifted log-by-log through a debris field, careful not to trigger any more movement of the mass of unstable, tree-tangled muck.

“They are picking up, basically, one log at a time, and looking all under and all over that one piece of material,” Sitka Deputy Fire Chief Al Stevens said.

“It’s a slow, methodical process, and we have to be very careful.”

Two bodies have been recovered in or near a home that was under construction. Their identities were withheld.

Logs, mud and other debris have collected at the end of the slide area, and officials were considering whether to use large boulders to form a barrier to stop further movement.

The sun was out Thursday, but more heavy rain was forecast Friday and into the weekend, with Sitka expected to get 50 to 75 millimetres over several days.

“That could really complicate any efforts that we have going to remove the debris and conduct the search,” said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

3 men presumed dead

Two adult brothers and a city building inspector were reported missing when six landslides caused by heavy rain swept over Sitka on Tuesday.

Two cadaver dogs helped lead rescuers to two of the bodies and were effective in pinpointing other areas of interest in the debris field, Stevens said without elaborating.

He has requested that three more cadaver dogs be sent to the mountainous community of about 9,000 people located 600 miles southeast of Anchorage.

The landslides came barrelling down after 63 millimetres of rain fell in a 24-hour period. The most devastating slide started at an elevation of 425 metres and slammed into a new house under construction about 300 metres lower.

Authorities believe the slide killed city building inspector William Stortz, 62, and brothers Elmer and Ulises Diaz, 26 and 25.

The Diaz brothers were painting a house that was caught in the landslide, and Stortz was inspecting a drainage system in the area, the governor’s office said.

Poor weather has hampered the recovery operations. A low-cloud cover prevented an aerial view on Wednesday, so a geologist hiked to the top of the slide area.

The survey found a majority of the debris in the landslide trough had already come down, with the rest expected to follow.

The instability of the muck and ongoing wet weather hampered cleanup crews.

Workers have been able to improve drainage in the debris field and cut troughs in the slide area. The efforts helped solidify the mud, at least along the northern perimeter where the body recovery effort was centred.

The mud, however, has blocked all access to water mains in the area, and leaks continued to liquefy the mud.