January 12, 2005, Wednesday Late Edition - Final

Section A Page 16 Column 1 Desk: National Desk Length: 1696 words




Rescue Crews Searching For Life Beneath the Slide


By CHARLIE LeDUFF and JOHN M. BRODER; Charlie LeDuff reported fromLa Conchita for this article and John M. Broder from Los Angeles.Nick Madigan contributed reporting from La Conchita, and Chris Dixonfrom Dana Point, Calif.


LA CONCHITA, Calif., Jan. 11


Rescue workers using sensitive listening devices and cadaver dogsprobed for buried victims on Tuesday in a 25-foot-deep mountain ofmud and debris left by Monday's mudslide as the rains finally endedand desperate family members kept vigil.


Bob Roper, the Ventura County fire chief, said Tuesday afternoonthat monitoring equipment was still picking up faint sounds of lifefrom the debris pile, raising the possibility of survivors. Rescuerspulled three more bodies from the mud on Tuesday, bringing theofficial death count to six.






''We're looking for any movement,'' Capt. Conrad Quintana of thefire department said. ''A part of an arm. A finger tapping. A cough.Someone crying. Any indication someone is alive in there.''


The missing included the wife and three children of Jimmie Wallet,a carpenter who left them briefly on Monday just before a500-foot-high rain-saturated hillside above this coastal hamletcollapsed.


''He was running toward the mountain while people were runningaway from it,'' said Mr. Wallet's mother, Linda Silva, who came to LaConchita on Tuesday to watch rescue efforts and await word of herdaughter-in-law and grandchildren. ''He ran up there and starteddigging with his hands. He was yelling, 'I have to get my kids! Mykids!'''


Ms. Silva said she had repeatedly tried to call herdaughter-in-law's mobile telephone, hoping that the sound of theringing would lead rescuers to the trapped family. But she received amessage saying the phone's voice mailbox was full.


The collapse of the hillside here was a deadly coda to five daysof rains across Southern California that have left 20 dead and driventhousands from their homes under threat of floods and mudslides.


Even as skies cleared on Tuesday, 4,000 people were evacuated fromthe banks of a surging creek miles to the south in the Orange Countycommunities of San Juan Capistrano and Dana Point. Glendale CommunityCollege was closed because of the threat of mudslides, and a hikerwho had been trapped for three days in a cave by floodwaters in theSan Bernardino Mountains was rescued by helicopter.


Among the dead across the region were a man whose body was foundwedged in a tree in a canyon, a woman who was run over by herhusband, who could not see her in the driving rain, and an18-year-old woman who was killed when her car hit a fallen tree. Herein La Conchita, where as many as 12 people were missing, 14 peoplewere also injured, 2 of them critically, and roughly half the town'shomes were destroyed or badly damaged. Dozens of roads around thearea, including U.S. 101 along the coast in both directions betweenVentura and Santa Barbara, remained closed because of mud or deepstanding water.


The National Weather Service said that 17 inches of rain hadfallen in downtown Los Angeles since Dec. 27, more than in any other15-day period on record. The latest storm, which began last Thursdayafternoon, brought 8 inches of rain to La Conchita, 11.4 inches toBeverly Hills and an astonishing 31.25 inches on a spot called OpidsCamp in the mountains above Los Angeles.


In La Conchita, about 100 rescue workers, including some stateprison inmates in orange jumpsuits, dug through the mud in anincreasingly gloomy search for any survivors.


Mr. Wallet was allowed to return to the mud pile covering thehouse where he and his family were staying with friends afterpleading with the police on Tuesday morning to let him back in. Thepolice had stopped him, saying no residents would be allowed toparticipate in the search. He grew frantic and tried to run past abarricade. The police handcuffed and detained him briefly beforeletting him in to help guide searchers to the house.


The house was owned by Charles Womack, 51, whose body was pulledfrom the debris on Monday. Mr. Wallet's wife, Michelle, and daughtersHannah, 10, Raven, 6, and Paloma, 3, were in the house when he wentto the store Monday afternoon for ice cream just before the hillsidecame crashing down in a terrifying 15 seconds of ruin. A fourthdaughter, Jasmine, 16, was with friends in Ventura on Monday.


Mr. Wallet raced back toward his house. ''He didn't move quickenough,'' said his friend, Ross Keck, a construction worker fromVentura who had come here to help. ''Hopefully, there's a chancethey're still alive in there. Either that or he's lost everythingthat matters.''


Mr. Wallet's mother said she had asked AT&T to clear herdaughter-in-law's cellphone mailbox to allow the phone to ring.


Chief Roper of Ventura County said that the way the debris hadfallen left rescuers with a hope of finding survivors. ''We are stillfinding concealed spaces large enough to live in and survive,'' hesaid. ''We have not given up hope on any of the people.''


He said that a mandatory evacuation of La Conchita had not beenordered because officials had no sign that the mountain was comingdown. Monitoring equipment installed after the last major slide, in1995, had not indicated any movement. More than 100 people had beenevacuated from the highway because it was blocked in both directionsby mud and overflowing water from the Ventura River, but he said thatas of Monday morning he had no reason to believe that La Conchita wasthreatened.


''I don't believe there's anything else we could have done,''Chief Roper said. ''This area is known to us and known to theresidents as unstable. At this point I don't see that we could havepredicted this at all.''


Drew McCrary, 47, who has lived in La Conchita for 27 years, wasone of those who stayed, and he disputed the official account. Hesaid that county officials were aware that the hillside was highlyunstable but failed to order an urgent and mandatory evacuation. Hesaid a friend told him he had heard on a police scanner at 7 a.m.,''The Conchita hills are coming down.''


La Conchita occupies a scenic spit of land between the base of atall cliff and the pounding surf of the Pacific Ocean about halfwaybetween Ventura and Santa Barbara. Its 200 or so residents are aneclectic mix of middle-class urban refugees, hippies and retirees.The wall of mud divided the town between its relatively prosperousnorth end and its south end. The slide flattened both a school buscrudely converted to a motor home and a BMW sedan.


Gisela Woggon, 58, lives on Vista del Rincon on the north end oftown, in a cinder-block cottage.


Asked why she lived in an area beneath the looming threat ofdisaster, Ms. Woggon said, ''It's a great place for tropicalgardening.''


She added that she ignored the sheriff's deputies who urged her toleave. ''A lot of people stayed,'' she said, adding: ''Where couldyou go? The river was crested and the highway was washed out.''


La Conchita was the site of another major mudslide, in March 1995,when 600,000 tons of earth came tumbling down the hillside, buryinghomes but causing no deaths. After that disaster, a group of 141residents sued the operators of the La Conchita Ranch Company, anavocado and lemon orchard perched on the bluff above town, accusingthe owners of weakening the hillside by overwatering the trees.


The residents lost the suit, in part because the judge waspersuaded that the area was naturally unstable and that the orchardoperations had not caused the 1995 mudslide.


Henry and Clara Alviani, who had lived in La Conchita since 1981,were among the plaintiffs. Shortly after the verdict in that case,they moved to a mobile home park in Ventura, about 20 minutes away.They decided that the area was simply not safe and that theauthorities were unlikely to do anything about it, Mrs. Alviani saidTuesday in a telephone interview. One of their friends, John MurrayMorgan, 56, was among those killed in Monday's slide.


She said that when she and her husband, a retired purchasingagent, moved to La Conchita it appeared to be an idyllic littleseaside village. After the 1995 mudslide, she said, property valuesplunged and the town became divided among those who were seekingmonetary damages from the county or the grove operator, and those,like her and her husband, who just wanted the county to do somethingto shore up the unstable hillside above the town.


''It was not the same anymore, and we just wanted out,'' Mrs.Alviani said.


Steve Bennett, the Ventura County supervisor who represents thedistrict that includes La Conchita, said it was possible that theentire town would be condemned as uninhabitable after two suchdevastating and predictable disasters.


''Is it a safe place to live now? I have no idea,'' Mr. Bennettsaid in a telephone interview. ''I'm focused now on trying to helpthe rescuers. It's going to take some time for the experts to get inthere and make that determination.''



Images: Photos: An aerial view yesterday showed homes, some buriedin 25 feet of mud and debris, pummeled by the mudslide on Monday inLa Conchita, Calif. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Associated Press); Arescue worker consoled Jimmie Wallet, in leather jacket, whose wifeand three children were missing. Earlier, he had dug in vain with hishands. (Photo by Monica Almeida/The New York Times); (2004 aerialphotograph from AirPhotoUSA, via Keyhole Earthviewer)


Chart/Map: ''Mudslide in La Conchita''

Rescuers continued to search for survivors of Monday's mudslide inLa Conchita, Calif.


Aerial photograph of La Conchita shows site of 1995 mudslide,Monday's mudslide and area of heaviest damage.


Graph tracks cumulative rainfall in Los Angeles since Dec. 27, ininches.


(Sources by U.S.G.S.; Pennsylvania State University)


Map of California highlighting La Conchita.