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Body of Navy commander, victim of Washington mudslide, found by brothers

Washington State Department of Transportation safety manager Mike Breysse examines areas devastated by a deadly mudslide on March 24, 2014, near Oso, Wash.

ARLINGTON, Wash. — Searchers on Tuesday added to the grim toll from Saturday’s mudslide near Oso, Wash., finding additional bodies in the muck and debris that once was a community.

Officials confirmed they had recovered 16 bodies since the slide and think there were as many as eight more that had been found but remained in the debris.

The announcement came in the evening, after rescue teams had expanded their search for survivors or bodies amid worsening weather conditions in a massive mudslide above the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River in Snohomish County.

Among those recovered was the body of U.S. Navy Cmdr. L. John Regelbrugge III, 49, who was found Tuesday morning on his property on Steelhead Drive, said his sister-in-law, Jackie Leighton of Vacaville, Calif.

Regelbrugge was a 32-year Navy veteran, she said.

“John was found this morning about 10 a.m. with his dog. His brothers found his body,” Leighton said.

Regelbrugge’s wife, Kris, remains missing, Leighton said: “They were both home when the slide hit, but they haven’t found her yet.”

Two of John Regelbrugge’s brothers and two of his sons “were all part of the search,” while his third son is overseas and now trying to make his way home, said Leighton.

Meanwhile, the Kitsap (Wash.) Sun reports that Chief Petty Officer William Spiller, a Navy career counselor assigned to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility detachment in Everett, Wash., is listed as unaccounted for, along with three of his children.

In a morning news conference Tuesday morning, John Pennington, Snohomish County's emergency management director, said that teams from the Washington Army National Guard and Federal Emergency Management Agency had arrived to help with the ground and air rescue.

By midmorning, hundreds had joined in a “highly visible” search with dogs and a variety of technologies such as sonar.

Officials Monday night were working on a list of 176 reports of missing people, although Pennington stressed that many could be duplicates. By Tuesday evening, Pennington said that number rose and fell so much throughout the day that he couldn’t provide an accurate number.

Pennington said, as he did Monday, that he believes in miracles. But he noted that officials had called in a state mortuary assistance team.

“I think that speaks for itself,” he said.

Speaking during drizzling rain in front of Arlington City Hall, Pennington and other officials said that despite the morning precipitation, visibility was good enough for airborne searchers to look through the area affected by the slide.

The rain, which is forecast to continue through the week, is “going to make it even more challenging,” to find and reach victims, said Travis Hots, chief of Snohomish County Fire District 21/22. “But our guys are going to be out there, digging around just like they were yesterday.”

Hots said the weather was just another reason why people should not try to search on their own.

“The last thing we want to have happen is people showing up in their cars and sneaking up on the pile,” Hots said.

The Darrington Fire Department said dozens of civilian volunteers showed up Tuesday morning to help with the search. Cindy White, a spokeswoman for the volunteers, said people from near and far sought to help professional searchers, and that the fire department set up a registry to keep track of local residents who are searching on their own, for their own safety.

Officials did relay some good news in the news conference, especially for the first town east of where the slide took place: Phone and Internet services were restored to Darrington around midnight Tuesday, and a second road into town, the Mountain Loop Highway, should open later in the day.

Steve Thomsen, the county’s public works director, said the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River was continuing to cooperate and should not hamper rescue operations. Earlier, officials were concerned that debris from the slide stuck in the river may cause severe flooding.

Thomsen said the river may rise a few feet, depending on the coming rain.

But much of the news coming from the morning update was grim.

Hots, the fire official, predicted that rescue and recovery effort will take weeks.

“This is going to be a very long event,” he said.

Seattle Times staff reporters Jack Broom, Alexa Vaughn and John Higgins contributed to this report.

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