California Searchers Dig By Hand Through Deadly Mudslide

LA CONCHITA, California (AP) -- Rescuers with listening devices sensitive enough to pick up a whimper or a faint tapping searched for victims feared buried in a mudslide that sent a thunderous cascade of trees and dirt onto this seaside hamlet.

At least four people were killed and 14 were injured, most of them pulled from the mud. As many as 20 others were unaccounted for.

Neighbors and relatives of the missing watched in agony Tuesday as rescuers hauled away dirt bucket by bucket and looked for signs of life. Commands for quiet would bring activity to a halt as rescuers lowered microphones into the debris to listen for survivors.

"I know they've got to be there. I'm not going to stop,'' Jimmie Wallet said as he desperately searched for his wife and three children, ages 2, 6 and 10. His face and clothes were caked in mud after digging for hours.

The mudslide was a byproduct of a ferocious string of storms that have claimed at least 19 lives around the state since Friday. The heavy rain has left bluffs and hillsides soaked, raising the risk of more mudslides like the one that devastated La Conchita on Monday.

The dirt flowed like a waterfall, engulfing more than a dozen homes in a four-block area of the town 113 kilometes (70 miles) northwest of Los Angeles. Panicked residents ran as the tons of mud closed in one them; others ran toward the mudslide, helping some of the injured reach safety. Twelve homes were destroyed and 16 were damaged.

Yellow-clad firefighters and prison crews in orange suits clambered over the dark brown mound, using their hands, shovels, buckets, wheelbarrows and chainsaws.

Initial work was done by hand, but by afternoon, a backhoe was brought in to move larger debris. Tow trucks removed flattened vehicles.

"There are a lot of residents here waiting on loved ones, and we can't give up yet,'' said Capt. Conrad Quintana of the Ventura County Fire Department.

All the while, a still-unstable cliff towered above them. Onlookers were given air horns and told to sound them if they saw any sign that the hillside was starting to give way again.

The fourth body was discovered around midday Tuesday. The victims include three men in their 50s and a woman.

Wallet, the man who spent the night digging for his wife and children, was briefly handcuffed and detained after trying to run past a barricade.

"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.

Wallet had gone to pick up ice cream when the mudslide hit. Emerging from a store, he watched the dirt curve toward his block. He sprinted to his home, but it was buried under the muck.

Wallet's story is one of several harrowing ordeals from the storms in Southern California: A man's body was found wedged in a tree in a canyon; an 18-year-old woman was killed when her car hit a fallen tree; a 79-year-old woman was run over and killed by her husband, who could not see her in the downpour.

Firefighters used a raft to rescue an 8-week-old baby, but it tipped over and flung everyone into the water. Two firefighters went into the rushing water after the baby, and one of them managed to carry the child to safety.

The baby's mother, Erica Henderson, told ABC television's "Good Morning America'' that despite her efforts to hoist the child above her head, her son William swallowed water as they were being washed away together.

"I thought I was going to lose him at that point,'' she said. "I pumped his chest with my hand and ... he spit up some water. He was still breathing.''

Skies were sunny when the bluff at La Conchita gave way without warning. Rain returned overnight, but Tuesday morning the search went on under a sunny blue sky, the kind of day that draws people to the area's beaches. No new storms were in sight through the weekend.

The National Weather Service said that downtown Los Angeles had recorded its wettest 15 consecutive days since record-keeping began in 1877, with a total of 17 inches (43 centimeters) of rain falling in the period ending Monday.

The storms brought heavy rain and snow to other states after moving eastward, causing flooding in Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. Several feet of snow fell in mountainous areas around the West.

Despite the clearing skies, authorities warned more flooding was possible throughout the region as runoff spilled into creeks.

In Orange County, about 4,000 people were evacuated along a five-kilometer (three-mile) stretch of a rain-swollen creek, but the evacuation was later lifted. The creek surged six meters (20 feet) above its normal 30-centimeter (one-foot) depth.

It was the second time the cliffs had smashed into La Conchita, perched between the Pacific Ocean and coastal bluffs. In March 1995, nine homes were destroyed when some 600,000 tons of earth fell onto the town after a powerful storm.

Angry homeowners sued a blufftop ranch owner they blamed for weakening the bluff by overwatering avocado groves. La Conchita Ranch Co. settled two years later for an undisclosed amount.

Others were mad at the county, which eventually put up a $400,000 (euro304,345) retaining wall. The wall collapsed immediately under Monday's slide, but officials said it was intended to stop only scattered debris, not a full-scale mudslide.

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