By Jonathan Kaminsky
ARLINGTON, Washington (Reuters) – A school custodian killed in Washington state’s mudslide was described as a tough-minded animal lover on Saturday and a popular librarian was memorialized, as mourners gathered in the first of a series of services for the over two dozen dead.
The funerals came two weeks after the disaster that left at least 33 people dead, even as searchers look for more bodies.
About 250 people crammed into a golf course clubhouse in Arlington, Washington, for the funeral of Summer Raffo, 36, a school custodian and specialist in hoof care for horses, just a few miles from the site where a torrent of mud swept her car off Highway 530 on March 22.
Raffo, the fifth of 14 siblings, was later pulled from the vehicle by a brother.
PHOTOS: Oso mudslide
“She was tough, with so many brothers,” Barak Pearson, who led her funeral service, told mourners. He described her as shy, but a loyal friend.
“She liked to be outdoors,” he said. “She loved animals. She was hardworking. She was dependable.”
Another service was held in nearby Darrington for Linda McPherson, 69, who was found dead in the debris of her home. Her husband survived when the mudslide engulfed the dwelling along with about three dozen other properties on the outskirts of the community of Oso, which lies in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains northeast of Seattle.
As the town’s longtime head librarian, she played a key role in educating thousands of children through the years, said Peter Selvig, who served with her on the Darrington School Board.
“She was a sweet, mellow, gentle woman,” Selvig said.
In all, three individual memorial services were being held on Saturday and services for more victims were set for Sunday.
Of the 30 people confirmed dead by the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s office, all but one have been identified, officials said in a statement. Recovery crews were still searching for another 13 people still unaccounted for, but that figure could fluctuate as it has since the day of the disaster, officials said.
Roughly 450 people from 117 different organizations were helping the search efforts, officials said.
A community candlelight vigil was planned Saturday in Darrington and more than 300 people were expected to attend, said Michael Duncan, the pastor of Mountain View Baptist Church which was organizing the event.
“This is an opportunity to begin the healing process,” Duncan said.
Over the next few days, funerals are planned for 5-year-old Kaylee Spillers, whose father and two siblings are among the dead and missing, and Alan Bejvl, 21, whose fiance, Delaney Webb, was also killed in the slide.
Recovery efforts have been hampered by rain creating treacherous conditions and raising the risk of further slides and flash floods. More rain and runoffs of melting mountain snow are forecast, with a quarter of an inch (6 mm) of precipitation expected on Sunday, before a two-week stretch of warm weather arrives on Monday which officials said will aid search efforts.
A team of volunteer veterinarians was rotating shifts on Saturday to tend to about 30 rescue dogs that have been deployed to help in the search for more victims.
The Washington State Department of Agriculture said it is deploying its “Reserve Veterinary Corps” for the first time. The group of 135 animal health specialists will treat dogs for minor cuts, hyperthermia and damaged pads, as well as decontaminate them after exposure to hazardous material and other pollutants in the debris field.
County officials are also organizing a “reunification” location and process so that survivors will be able to go to retrieve personal property recovered from the disaster site.
(Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Arlington, Washington; Additional reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City; Writing by Eric M. Johnson and Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Gunna Dickson, Dan Grebler and Lisa Shumaker)