Four dead in California mudslides; rescuers search for missing

Four dead in California mudslides; rescuerssearch for missing

Friday, December 26, 2003
By Alex Veiga, Associated Press
Source: ENN

SAN BERNARDINO, California — Searchers slogging through waist-high muck found four people dead Friday and looked for at least 12 others missing after mudslides engulfed two camps in the San Bernardino Mountains.

The missing included nine children, ages 6 months to 16 years, who had been at a Greek Orthodox youth camp.

The mudslides were set off on Christmas Day after as much as 3.5 inches of rain fell on hillsides that had been stripped of vegetation by wildfires in October and November. Tree trunks and boulders went roaring down the hillsides, along with the mud.

Two bodies were found near the Saint Sophia Camp, the Greek Orthodox retreat.

Another two bodies were found near each other near a trailer camp in Devore, about five miles to the west, San Bernardino County authorities said.

“I thought I was going to die,” said Brian Delaney, 19, who described mud crashing into a recreation center at the trailer camp . He was trapped up to his neck before rescuers pulled him out.

Twenty-eight people were believed to have been spending Christmas Day with the caretaker of Saint Sophia Camp, when the mudslide smashed into two camp cabins. Fourteen of them were rescued on Christmas Day, some pulled from the thick, gray mud and from beneath fallen trees. One man told a relative he grabbed his young daughter but watched helplessly as his wife and other child were swept away.

Friday morning, with the roads and bridges washed out, searchers had to hike over the rough terrain to resume the search at the camp in Waterman Canyon, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles. The mud was 12 to 15 feet in places as sheriff’s deputies and firefighters worked their way through the debris.

The youth camp’s caretaker, George Monzon, was among those unaccounted for, said the Rev. John Bakas, who helps lead the camp. He said there was no organized events there Christmas Day and he did not know who the others may have been.

Mildred Najara identified two others missing as her 40-year-old sister, Rosa, and 7-year-old niece, Katrine. Her brother-in-law, Gilberto Juarez, had been able to save the couple’s 3-year-old daughter, Stephanie, she said.

“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,” Najara said. “They became separated when the water rushed in.”

Juarez was among 10 people treated for minor injuries, including a man found buried waist-deep in mud and debris and trapped beneath a log. Rescue crews were able to cut the log free and carry the man across a creek to safety, San Bernardino County Fire Capt. Rick McClintock said.

The storm dumped more than 3.5 inches) of rain on areas heavily scarred by wildfires this fall, flooding streets in San Bernardino and elsewhere, cutting power to more than 67,000 customers and causing mudslides. The blazes in October and November, the most severe in California’s history, burned off vegetation that normally would help shore up the steep terrain, leaving the ground prone to mudslides.

Much of Waterman Canyon had been scorched by a wildfire that burned more than 91,000 acres, destroyed 993 homes and killed four people.

On Thursday, authorities evacuated residents who live in the canyon and closed off the road leading there. A surging stream of mud and water rushed through the canyon, which looked like a sea of gray mud.

County Fire Marshal Peter Brierty said rescuers faced “incredibly mushy, muddy, slippery” conditions, with some slipping into the mud up to their hips as they tried to navigate the canyon.

The debris flows contained logs and branches, making them especially dangerous.

Elsewhere in the county, a mudslide triggered by the heavy rain damaged and toppled trailers at a campground in Devore. Sheriff’s spokeswoman Cindy Beavers said 30 to 50 people suffered minor injuries. Emergency crews spent much of Christmas Day setting sand bags outside homes and along waterways to contain flood water and diverting traffic from washed out roads.

The Pacific storm began moving into Southern California on Wednesday evening, bringing Los Angeles its first rainy Christmas Day in two decades.

Strong wind gusts downed power lines in parts of Los Angeles and San Bernardino, and in downtown Los Angeles, wind blew eight stories of scaffolding onto parked cars, damaging the vehicles but causing no injuries.

The mudslides also derailed an empty freight train in the Cajon Pass near Los Angeles and shut down two main tracks between the Los Angeles basin and points east that serve about 100 trains a day, said Lena Kent, a spokeswoman for Burlington Northern and A&D Santa Fe Railway. There were no reports of injuries. 


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