Rescue called off in Calif. mudslide

Death Toll Rises in Southern California Mudslide
Members of a prison crew pause while searching for survivors and recovering the dead in the debris flow of a huge mudslide Wednesday in La Conchita.David Mcnew / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Authorities ended the search Thursday for victims of the deadly mudslide and warned residents not to return to the town because of the danger of another collapse.

The death toll stood at 10 in the beach community devastated by Monday’s torrent of dirt and trees, and everyone on the list of missing people had been located. Thirteen homes were destroyed and 18 others were damaged.

In spite of the return of dry, sunny weather, officials said the danger of mudslides remained high. Meanwhile, the massive storm that triggered the slide was wreaking destruction in other Western states, destroying homes and washing out roads in Arizona, Nevada and Utah.

“The La Conchita community is a geologically hazardous area,” Sheriff Bob Brooks said. “It has been historically, it is today, and it will remain so. We do not recommend that people return to this area or the people who stay here remain here.”

The entire town of about 260 people was evacuated Monday.

Brooks conceded that officials do not have the authority to prevent people from going back if their homes have been determined to be sound. Authorities planned to meet with residents Friday to discuss a specific plan for their return.

Brooks said the remaining pile of mud and debris might never be moved, even though some homes remained buried. Geologists warned that moving the mound could bring more mudslides, because it is acting as a support for the rest of the rain-saturated hillside.

“You could lose the rest of the community,” Brooks said.

Authorities estimated that 400,000 tons of mud fell on the community and an additional 1.3 million tons remained on the unstable hillside.

It was the second time the cliffs behind La Conchita had smashed into the community. In March 1995, nine homes were destroyed when some 600,000 tons of earth fell onto the town after a powerful storm.

The search for more possible victims was ended after radar found no pockets in the muck where people might have taken shelter.

“The last person brought out alive was 56 hours ago,” Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper said. “We are now moving this operation from a rescue operation to a re-establishment of the community.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger visited La Conchita on Wednesday and declared a state of emergency in Ventura County that will make it eligible for government aid.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said President Bush and federal officials were also trying to help.

“The president wants to make sure we’re doing what we need to be doing from a federal level to support officials and authorities in California,” McClellan said.

From his hospital bed, survivor Greg Ray recalled seeing a mountain come down toward him when the slide hit.

“I lost people that I love, and the only reason that I’m alive ... I don’t know,” Ray said.

Ray, 61, dived into a space between two parked cars seconds before a trailer and mud overtook him. The cars were crushed “down to the wheels,” he said.

Rescuers found Ray within minutes, but it took three hours to dig him out.