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HOLDING OUT HOPE MUDSLIDE SURVIVORS SOUGHT; SIX DEAD.

Byline: Andrea Cavanaugh and Eric Leach Staff Writers

LA CONCHITA - Clinging to hope, hundreds of emergency workers and prison crews sifted through buckets of mud Tuesday in search of survivors of the massive mudslide that devastated this Ventura County coastal community.

All they found was three more bodies - victims of a wave of relentless storms that turned a cliff into a sea of liquid clay. Six people were known dead; a dozen others remained listed as missing.

Rescuers have pulled 10 people alive from the mud since catastrophe struck Monday. Eight of those people were injured, two critically.

Still, as darkness fell for a second night Tuesday, Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper said rescue efforts would go on in the hope that pockets of air in the ruins of nearly 20 houses crushed by the mud would protect survivors.

``As long as we're seeing that, there's hope of finding survivors. When we hit rock and dirt, we know there won't be survivors.''

La Conchita resident Jimmie Wallet spent the night and day digging at his home in search of his wife Michelle and three daughters, Hanna, 10, Raven, 6, and Paloma, 2. ``I know they've got to be there. I'm not going to stop,'' Wallet said during a break in the search effort Tuesday, his face and clothing caked with mud.

Wallet had gone to a nearby gas station for ice cream Monday when the slide hit. He watched the hillside collapse and ran to his home, but it was buried.

The gas station where Wallet bought the ice cream was converted to a makeshift morgue Tuesday.

``We can't get him to eat anything. He's going like a mad dog,'' Wallet's friend Larry Gallardo said. ``He's running on adrenaline.''

Wallet was briefly handcuffed and detained after trying to run past a barricade. He had returned to the wreckage with about 15 friends ready to help him dig.

``I have to get my kid! I have to get my kid!'' Wallet screamed before he was taken into a command post and then allowed to return to the mound.

More than 600 rescuers aided by search dogs, cameras and listening devices picked painstakingly through the wreckage, searching for the faintest sign of survivors beneath the jumble of debris. Over and over, the recovery effort stalled as rescuers called for silence after detecting misleading sounds of hope.

Rescuers heard barely detectable noises from within the debris that may have come from survivors until about 6 a.m. Tuesday, but the sounds were drowned out by the roar of heavy equipment needed to pry walls, roofs and houses from atop the pile, Roper said.

``These listening devices are so sensitive, they can even detect a heartbeat,'' Ventura County Fire spokesman Joe Luna said. ``Sometimes raindrops or even the wind will stimulate them.''

Twelve homes were buried under tons of mud and debris when the bluff suddenly gave way Monday afternoon after four days of torrential rain. Another 16 homes were damaged.

The force of the slide rolled houses, cars and trees into a massive pile of debris more than 30 feet deep.

Searchers dug under partially cloudy skies Tuesday, grateful that the rain had finally stopped falling but hampered by strong winds and rapidly solidifying mud within the debris pile.

Four of the dead were identified Tuesday as John Morgan, 56, Michael Anthony Alvis, 53, Charles Wommack, 51, and Vanessa Joy Bryson, 27. Two more bodies remained unidentified.

Firefighters using shovels, wheelbarrows and five-gallon buckets picked delicately through the mountain of refuse, searching for survivors.

``It's really, really grim up there,'' Ventura County sheriff's Deputy Rick Harwood said. ``The task is overwhelming. There's no easy way to accomplish what we need to accomplish. One stick at a time, I guess.''

A team of six rescue dogs and five cadaver dogs sniffed through the debris all day Tuesday, led by Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Bill Monahan.

``We want to find the dead, but we're in rescue mode - we want to find the living while we still have the chance,'' Monahan said. ``I'll search till Christmas. When the listening device can't hear it and the dog can't see it, the dog can smell it.''

Escorted by deputies, many of the community's 260 dazed residents returned to their homes briefly to collect belongings before returning to shelters or friends' homes in Carpinteria or Ventura.

Many blamed Ventura County officials for failing to warn residents or take steps to prevent another landslide after a 1995 bluff collapse that destroyed or damaged nine homes.

``They never fixed it right,'' said Lorraine Thompson, who has lived in the community since 1987. ``If it was Malibu, they would have fixed it right.''

But county officials said residents have been warned again and again that their homes lay in the path of a severe geological hazard.

``In the 1995 slide, homes were fenced off, but people cut the fences and moved back in anyway,'' Ventura County Sheriff Bob Brooks said.

County building officials said that a retaining wall built as part of a road project in the area after the 1995 slide was never meant to stop future landslides, as some residents reportedly believed.

La Conchita residents unsuccessfully sued the county and a blufftop avocado grower after the 1995 landslide, claiming irrigation undermined the bluff and led to the collapse.

Gisela Woggon knew her rented home was considered structurally unsound when she moved into it seven years ago, she said. Her landlord bought the home for just $4,000 after the 1995 mudslide.

``The house had a 'condemned' sign on it when I moved in,'' she said. ``When you're paying really cheap rent ... it was worth the risk. I like to live on the edge.''

Southbound lanes of Highway 101 are expected to reopen this morning, but northbound lanes likely could remain closed until Friday. It was unclear when Amtrak would resume service.

Associated Press contributed to this story.

Andrea Cavanaugh, (818)713-3669

andrea.cavanaugh(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

3 photos, map

Photo:

(1 -- color) Jimmie Wallet, whose wife and three daughters are still missing after the La Conchita mudslide, is consoled by a rescue worker at the scene Tuesday.

Michael Owen Baker/Staff Photographer

(2 -- 3) Left, a stream of firefighters arrives at the La Conchita mud and debris pile on Tuesday to help search for survivors or bodies. Above, La Conchita residents hug each other as they wait while search and rescue crews sift through rubble for the missing.

Tina Burch/Staff Photographer

Gene Blevins/Special to the Daily News

Map:

Homes damaged

LA CONCHITA

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 12, 2005
Words:1100
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