7 Dead In California Mudslides

Rescue workers search for victims Friday, Dec. 26, 2003, in a mobile home that was washed away after devastating mudslides swept through Devore, Calif., in the San Bernadino mountains on Thursday. ( AP

Searchers slogging through waist-high muck found seven people dead Friday and looked for at least nine others missing after Christmas Day mudslides engulfed two camps in the San Bernardino Mountains in a terrifying torrent of soil, boulders and tree trunks.

"I thought I was going to die," said Brian Delaney, 19, who was trapped up to his neck before rescuers pulled him out of the mud that crashed into the recreation center at a trailer-home encampment in Devore.

Two bodies were found near the trailer camp, San Bernardino County authorities said, and 32 trailers were destroyed. No one else was missing there, said sheriff's Deputy Kris Phillips.

Five bodies were found below a Greek Orthodox retreat, the Saint Sophia Camp. Twenty-eight people were believed to have been spending Christmas Day with the camp's caretaker when the wall of mud swept away two buildings on one side of the camp. Fourteen of the people were rescued on Christmas Day.

County sheriff's spokesman Chip Patterson cautioned that it was not certain that the bodies recovered in Waterman Canyon were from the camp. The coroner's office was trying to identify the bodies Friday night.

Just two months ago, one of California's worst wildfires stripped the canyon, north of San Bernadino, of almost all vegetation, reports CBS News Correspondent Vince Gonzales. Officials knew, with nothing to hold the mountainsides in place, conditions were ripe for a massive mudslide.

"It's sort of like going through an avalanche," said Patterson. "They are actually sticking the mud with poles. And of course the dogs are going to be instrumental in helping to look for survivors."

Most structures at Saint Sophia Camp, built on a plateau at the upper end of the canyon, were unscathed. A bench was left sticking out of the muck downstream, and a swing set lay on its side.

"These folks had no warning," said county fire spokeswoman Tracey Martinez. "It just happened. According to the survivors we've spoken to they didn't even know it was coming until it was there."

Temperatures fell rapidly at dusk and the National Weather Service issued a frost advisory for the region. Patterson said the search would go on through the night.

"We have no reason to think we can't find survivors and I hope we will," Patterson said. "We're not even close to giving up."

In the Devore area, on the east side of the Cajon Pass running between the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountain ranges, rainfall totaled 4.39 inches, according to the National Weather Service. On the San Gabriel side of the pass, 8.57 inches of rain fell.

On Friday, with the roads and bridges washed out, sheriff's deputies and firefighters had to hike over the rough terrain and climb over or around rocks and fallen trees to resume the search at the camp in Waterman Canyon, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles. The mud was 12 to 15 feet deep in places.

County Fire Marshal Peter Brierty said rescuers faced "incredibly mushy, muddy, slippery" conditions, with some slipping into the mud up to their hips. "Even a foot or 2 feet of this will knock you down," he said.

The caretaker of the church camp, George Monzon, was among the missing, said the Rev. John Bakas, who helps lead the retreat.

The leader of Greek Orthodox Christians in seven Western states, Metropolitan Anthony of San Francisco, called for prayers and expressed hope for "positive results" from the search. "As for those lives that we know are lost, we pray for their souls and for comfort for their families," he said in a statement.

Also among the missing there were a 7-year-old girl and her mother, the girl's aunt said. The missing woman's husband, Gilberto Juarez, saved their 3-year-old daughter, Stephanie, and they were among those taken to a hospital on Christmas. But he could not reach his wife, Rosa, 40, and daughter Katrine.

"He said he helped the little girl up and when he turned they were gone, the water had risen too much and had swept the cabin away," said Juarez's sister-in-law, Mildred Najara. "They became separated when the water rushed in."

The trailer campground had a number of permanent residents. One of them, Delaney, said about 30 people had gathered in the recreation center because they were nervous about the heavy rain. After the power went out, rocks and other debris came crashing through the door.

Mud soon filled the center and Delaney and others broke the windows to escape.

"I tried to pull two ladies out," he said. "There were kids sitting on the pool table, and the pool table was almost up to the ceiling on the mud."

Once outside, Delaney got stuck in mud up to his neck and had to shed his clothing so rescuers could pull him out.

"I'm lucky to be alive," he said.

Nearly 750,000 acres were burned bare by the wildfires last fall. Much of the scorched land was on the steep slopes of the San Bernardinos.
  • Lloyd Vries

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