1 body recovered, 2 still missing after Alaska landslide

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Posted: Aug 20, 2015 3:23 PM
1 body recovered, 2 still missing after Alaska landslide

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Crews recovered one body and were working to stabilize a landslide area in an Alaska coastal town 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 construction site, officials said Thursday.

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

One unidentified body was found Wednesday evening in or near a home that was under construction. Search dogs returned to the area Thursday, said Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the state homeland security department.

He said a survey on Wednesday found a majority of the debris in the landslide trough had already come down, lessening concerns about another slide.

However, rain fell again overnight, and Zidek said the area would have to be re-examined Thursday to make sure conditions didn't change.

More heavy rain was expected into the weekend.

"That could really complicate any efforts that we have going to remove the debris and conduct the search," Zidek said.

Efforts to solidify the ground have been difficult since part of a mountain gave way and the tree-tangled muck engulfed the home under construction.

Crews have improved drainage in the debris field and cut troughs in the slide area to improve drainage, helping solidify the mud.

Sitka, almost 600 miles southeast of Anchorage, is a picturesque cruise ship destination and Pacific Ocean fishing community of more than 9,000 people.

Tucked against snowcapped mountains, the city is located in rain forest terrain on the west coast of Baranof Island.

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.

Resident Ramon Hernandez said he and the Diaz brothers are partners in a painting and drywall contracting business. The brothers are longtime residents who love playing basketball and are very close to each other, Hernandez said. Their parents also live in Sitka.

Hernandez said he was hoping to get a 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."

City spokesman Ken Fate said there was no time-frame for fully clearing the site, which he called a huge undertaking.

Gov. Bill Walker inspected the damage Wednesday and met with family and friends of the missing men.

"This has been a very sad week for the people of Sitka," Walker said in a statement released by his office. "Tragedies like this are never easy to cope with, but I was heartened to see so many volunteers and first responders working hard to bring comfort to their fellow Sitka residents."

Some residents near the construction site and at a downslope neighborhood were allowed to return home after being evacuated.

The city has asked the state for an emergency declaration, and Walker said his office is expediting the request.

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Associated Press writer Rachel D'Oro contributed to this report from Anchorage