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1 body recovered, 2 missing after Alaska landslide

Rachel D'Oro
Associated Press

Anchorage, Alaska — Crews have recovered one body and are working to stabilize a landslide area to aid the search for two more men believed killed when an avalanche of logs and mud — described as having the consistency of pudding — swept over a southeast Alaska construction site.

Efforts to solidify the ground have been difficult since part of a mountain gave way and tree-tangled muck poured into the Sitka area Tuesday, engulfing a home under construction. Crews cleared 25 yards of the slide Wednesday, working from the less dangerous uphill side, but couldn’t provide an estimate of its total size, the Alaska Dispatch News reported.

Searchers found one body near the site on Wednesday night, but it has not had been identified, Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, told the newspaper.

Cloud cover over the mountain also slowed the effort by preventing an aerial view of the slide, which authorities believe killed city building inspector William Stortz, 62, and brothers Elmer and Ulises Diaz, 26 and 25. The brothers were working on the home when the landslide hit.

Workers tried using heavy equipment Wednesday to divert stream water washing over the debris, which geologists were reviewing to see how responders can safely begin searching for the missing men, officials said.

Zidek said crews searched around the perimeters, but the bulk of the debris pile remained too unstable to tackle. The mud that is covering the site has the consistency of pudding, he said.

“We don’t want to put additional people in harm’s way and compound the problem,” he said.

City spokesman Ken Fate said there is no time-frame for fully clearing the site, which he called a huge undertaking. Also, the water coursing through the debris pile is flowing through the neighborhood and overwhelming the city sewer system, he said.

Gov. Bill Walker toured the area Wednesday to see the damage from six landslides that crashed into different parts of the city Tuesday after 2 1/2 inches of rain fell in 24 hours. The picturesque fishing community, tucked between snowcapped mountains and the Pacific Ocean, is nestled in rain forest terrain on the west coast of Baranof Island that is characterized by heavy rains year-round.

Homes in town have been flooded, and there were reports of people not being able to reach their houses or leave their neighborhood, Zidek said.

Local resident Ramon Hernandez said the Diaz brothers are partners with him in Four Points Painting, a painting and drywall contractor in Sitka. The brothers are longtime residents who love playing basketball and are very close to each other, Hernandez said. The brothers’ parents also live in Sitka.

Hernandez said he is holding out hope that he will get a phone call that the brothers are alive.

“There’s been plenty of phone calls with bad news,” he said. “I think it’s fair for me to have a phone call with good news now.”

Residents of about 20 homes near the construction site and at a downslope neighborhood were evacuated. Residents in the lower neighborhood were allowed to retrieve belongings for 30 minutes on Wednesday, according to Fate.

The city of more than 9,000 people declared a state of emergency. Sitka, almost 600 miles southeast of Anchorage, is a popular cruise ship destination that features such landmarks as Mount Edgecumbe, an extinct volcano that rises 3,200 feet and somewhat resembles Japan’s Mount Fuji.

Heavy rain was blamed for a major landslide in September near the town that wiped out hundreds of thousands of dollars in watershed-restoration projects. The rain also damaged a footbridge and trails, including one that had been repaired after flooding in January 2014.

A year earlier, two people at a U.S. Forest Service cabin near Sitka escaped moments before part of a mountain slid down.