Mother and three children found dead after mudslide


Published: Thursday, January 13, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 13, 2005 at 12:22 a.m.
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Jimmie Wallet of La Conchita, Calif., searches for his family Monday beneath the rubble in the aftermath of a massive mudslide in La Conchita, Calif. Rescuers searching with shovels, their bare hands and tiny video cameras dropped into holes found the bodies of his 37-year-old wife, Mechelle, and daughters Hannah, 10, Raven, 6, and Paloma, 2, early Wednesday, Ventura County Fire Capt. Danny Rodriguez confirmed.

AP Photo/Victor Valley Daily Press, Scott Smeltzer
LA CONCHITA, Calif. - Rescuers searching with shovels, their bare hands and tiny video cameras dropped into holes found the bodies of a woman and three of her children before dawn Wednesday, bringing the death toll from a mudslide in this seaside hamlet to 10, officials said.
Ventura County Fire Capt. Danny Rodriguez said the bodies were found as crews worked around the clock for a second straight night, swarming over the debris pile under a clear sky and powerful lights.
The four dead were the wife and three daughters of La Conchita resident Jimmie Wallet, Ventura County sheriff's chaplain Ron Matthews told The Associated Press.
The storms also were blamed for flooding that destroyed houses in Arizona and Utah.
Twelve people were still listed as missing after Monday's 30-foot-deep mudslide, which was triggered by five days of nearly nonstop rain. But officials said that number was expected to be reduced to eight to reflect the discovery of the mother and children. With the 10 known dead at La Conchita, the storm's toll in California since Friday rose to 25.
Wallet had been among the most visible of the town's residents since the slide as he frantically searched alongside firefighters for his 37-year-old wife, Mechelle, and daughters Hannah, 10, Raven, 6, and Paloma, 2.
After the bodies were found, friends took him out of town with his 16-year-old daughter. Wallet was out getting ice cream when the slide hit, while his teen daughter was in Ventura.
"I'm very pleased with the hard work and all the effort in finding my family," Wallet said in a statement relayed by Matthews.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger viewed the area by helicopter Wednesday and then met with residents.
"It's extraordinary the way people have come together here from the moment the mudslides hit," Schwarzenegger said. "People rushed to the aid of their neighbors, helping each other escape the danger and trying to find survivors."
"We have seen the power of nature cause damage and despair, but we will match that power with our own resolve," he said.
The days of torrential rain also triggered fatal traffic accidents all across the state, knocked out power to hundreds of thousands, imperiled hillside homes and caused flash floods.
By Wednesday, no new sounds had been heard under the rubble for more than 24 hours. But Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper said teams would continue looking and listening for signs of life.
"We're still finding voids," he said, referring to air pockets survivors could use to breathe. "We're still going to continue this as a search and rescue operation."
Crews were bringing in a radar device Wednesday to scan into the debris pile, he said.
Ten people were injured in the slide, which came down like a curving, rolling waterfall onto the tiny town between Highway 101 and a coastal bluff.
Fifteen homes were destroyed and 16 were damaged. Roper said the slide rolled homes over and intermixed debris, hindering efforts to identify the rubble of specific houses.
The painstaking search through layer upon layer of muck was made more difficult by the jumble of building wreckage mixed with the mud. Rescuers tried to carefully scoop out parts of the pile to make sure they checked sections of trapped air where a survivor might be able to breathe. The tiny video cameras were inserted into voids.
The searchers were using dogs trained to search for live victims and others that can locate cadavers.
Rescuers got a break Tuesday when the rain finally stopped. National Weather Service forecaster Stuart Seto said clear weather was expected to continue through at least the weekend.
The storms' effect was also felt outside California.
Muddy rivers roared through towns along the Nevada-Arizona-Utah lines on Tuesday, flooding homes in the Nevada resort town of Mesquite and forcing the evacuation of about 100 people in nearby Overton.
Fourteen houses were destroyed or washed away at the northwest Arizona community of Beaver Dam. Emergency crews were at work Wednesday grading a 12-mile-long dirt road for the community's roughly 1,400 residents, who were isolated because their main road was washed out at a bridge. No deaths or serious injuries were reported.
In central Arizona, about 800 people living east of Tonto Creek in Punkin Center were marooned at their homes Wednesday because the creek was too deep to cross.
About 20 homes had been washed away in southwest Utah's Washington County, Sheriff Kirk Smith said Wednesday. One man was missing near St. George after high water swept him off the top of his stalled car, but no other injuries had been reported.
Utah National Guard helicopters airlifted people out of the Gunlock and Motoqua areas near St. George after they were isolated by a bridge washout, said Washington County Chief Deputy Perry Lambert.
A search resumed Wednesday in western Colorado for a skier missing since Sunday. His wife and daughter were found alive early Tuesday. More than 10 feet of snow has fallen in some areas of the western Colorado mountains, and a cold front was expected to arrive late Wednesday with subzero temperatures.

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