SEATTLE (AP) — Three days after a huge landslide destroyed a small community in rural Washington state, authorities still had no firm idea how many people were missing, possibly buried in the tangled mess of mud, trees and debris. And the potential number keeps fluctuating wildly – first it was 18, then 108, then 176.

The changing figure has added to the confusion of a rescue and recovery operation that has involved aircraft, heavy equipment, trained search crews, and desperate friends and family using chain saws and their bare hands to pick through the debris.

18, 108, 176? Just How Many People Are Really Missing in Deadly Landslide?

Footprints from searchers remain in mud at the edge of a deadly mudslide Tuesday, March 25, 2014, in Oso, Wash. At least 14 people were killed in the 1-square-mile slide that hit in a rural area about 55 miles northeast of Seattle on Saturday. Several people also were critically injured, and homes were destroyed. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

WHY IS THE NUMBER CHANGING SO MUCH?

Officials are compiling the list from calls from worried family members, friends and locals. Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington said the number of potential missing likely includes duplicate names as people phone in reports about the same person. Authorities are working through the list, being extra cautious before they make conclusions.

18, 108, 176? Just How Many People Are Really Missing in Deadly Landslide?

Flowers are left on debris next to a demolished home where a woman’s body was found following a deadly mudslide, Tuesday, March 25, 2014, in Arlington, Wash. At least 14 people were killed in the 1-square-mile slide that hit in a rural area about 55 miles northeast of Seattle on Saturday. Several people also were critically injured, and homes were destroyed (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

ARE THERE REALLY MORE THAN 170 DEATHS?

Almost certainly not. Pennington said “the 176, I believe very strongly is not a number we’re going to see in fatalities. I believe it’s going to drop dramatically.”

18, 108, 176? Just How Many People Are Really Missing in Deadly Landslide?

Volunteers with chainsaws march down a rugged path toward the scene of a deadly mudslide that hit Saturday, Tuesday, March 25, 2014, in Arlington, Wash. At least 14 people were killed in the 1-square-mile slide that hit in a rural area about 55 miles northeast of Seattle. Several people also were critically injured, and homes were destroyed. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

DON’T AUTHORITIES KNOW HOW MANY PEOPLE LIVED IN THE COMMUNITY?

The information-gathering process has been complicated by the nature of the rural area 55 miles north of Seattle where the slide hit Saturday morning. Pennington said officials have determined it included 49 parcels containing some kind of structure – including manufactured homes, a cabin and vacation properties. Not every structure was occupied full time. Some were only used sporadically. Complicating matters further is the fact that it’s believed some nonresidents were working in the area and some victims may have been driving through the state highway that was also covered by mud.

18, 108, 176? Just How Many People Are Really Missing in Deadly Landslide?

A search dog helps in the effort to find victims of the massive slide in Oso, Wash., Monday, March 24, 2014. (AP Photo /The Herald, Dan Bates)

WHY IS IT TAKING CREWS SO LONG TO FIND MORE PEOPLE?

The debris field is a huge, dangerous mess – 15 feet thick in some places. “It’s muddy, in areas it’s like quicksand,” said Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots. “One of the folks out there told me, `Chief, sometimes it takes five minutes to walk 40 or 50 feet.’” Searchers are also running into gasoline and septic discharge and dealing with ground that geologists warn remains unstable.

18, 108, 176? Just How Many People Are Really Missing in Deadly Landslide?

LoAnna Langton receives diapers from Amanda Davidson who set up a Facebook fundraiser for victims of the slide at the Community Center Monday, March 24, 2014, in Darrington, Wash. (AP Photo /The Herald, Sofia Jaramillo) 

WILL THEY FIND MORE SURIVORS?

Authorities insist rescue operations are continuing, but as more time passes they concede that hope is fading. “Most of us in these communities do not believe we’ll find anyone alive,” Pennington said. “I’m a man of faith and I believe in miracles.”

18, 108, 176? Just How Many People Are Really Missing in Deadly Landslide?

A shoe encased in mud sits at the edge of the site of a deadly mudslide Tuesday, March 25, 2014, in Oso, Wash. At least 14 people were killed in the 1-square-mile slide that hit in a rural area about 55 miles northeast of Seattle on Saturday. Several people also were critically injured, and homes were destroyed. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) 

NOT UNUSUAL

Massive flooding in Colorado last year was plagued by the same uncertainty over the death toll and who was missing. In the early days of the flooding, more than 1,200 people were listed as unaccounted for, but the list shrank quickly as people checked in after they were evacuated. In the end, only nine people died.