Moments after the mudslide here Monday, Jimmie Wallet fell to his hands and knees and clawed through the debris, frantically searching for his wife and three youngest daughters — all buried in their home almost three stories beneath him.
But two days later, his worst fear was realized when their bodies were pulled out, raising the death toll to 10. Wallet decided to talk to NBC News about the eight seconds that changed his life.
"You do anything," he said of the digging. "I would have ate through it if my hands gave out."
It was a heartbreaking image. "That's Raven's palm print right there," he said pointing to a print on his jacket. "That's my 6-year-old's."
Hours after Wallet shared his memories of his family and of Monday's nightmare, authorities called off the search for survivors in the 30-foot-deep flow, saying that radar scans had found no open pockets where survivors could be trapped.
Authorities say their efforts will switch to re-establishing the community. But some areas might never be safe in the “geologically hazardous area.”
Search suspended after hillside shifts
Workers said a muddy section at the base of the wall shifted six feet early Thursday, forcing an immediate suspension of the search, which was continued even after all missing residents were accounted for on the chance that visitors to the town could have been swept up in the flow.
The unstable soil is the result of two weeks of almost continuous rain that hammered Southern California.
The storms were so unrelenting that, on the day of the disaster, Wallet and Michelle, his wife of 16 years, decided to leave the coastal town. Michelle had heard warnings of possible mudslides, and their eldest child, 16-year-old Jasmine, was already away.
But before they left Wallet stepped out to get ice cream for the kids. What he saw next shocked him.
“I was going ‘NOOOO.’ I was running as hard as I could. That mud was heavy and like a faucet on. Water that quick. I saw houses, trailers, cars aiming mud straight to the house. (It) hit the back of the house. It hit a room, fill up and boom! Fill up and boom! Just explosions like there was dynamite in there.”
That night he began digging next to official rescuers, convinced that he heard his daughter Raven's voice.
‘Her last scream’
“I wanted to hear voices,” he said. "I kept digging because I know I heard it. I heard a moan. I go, 'You got to scream, babies.' I said, 'Did you hear it?' They (rescuers) said, 'Yeah.' That was her last scream."
Wednesday morning officials announced finding the bodies of his wife, 10-year-old Hannah, Raven, who had just celebrated her 6th birthday, and Paloma, who never made it to her third.
"They were so pure and good," he said. "They are in a better place. They were ready, and Mother Nature took them."
Wallet and Michelle met at Ventura High School in 1985. Friends called them soulmates.
"She took my breath away from the get-go," Wallet said. "She's my one and only through all eternity and more."
A place called ‘Never Never Land’
They married in 1988 and started by all accounts a close-knit, free-spirited family. Michelle home-schooled the kids while Jimmie worked odd jobs. There was never much money, but living in La Conchita, it didn't seem to matter.
"The place we lived, I called it Never Never Land," he said. "It was for my kids a paradise, and you could see it in them."
But this week Wallet was a troubled man, appearing to berate a reporter and detained by authorities after crossing a police line to continue digging on his own.
"I told everyone I saw with passes to get in, there are lives in here.... They don't have a chance. It's not going fast enough. Get more people. Let it be crowded. Just dig."
Now Wallet says rescuers gave him a gift by finding his family. And he wants to do the same for others by continuing to dig.
"It's what is in my heart. Last night I went home after I saw my kids' [bodies], I have to do this for someone else," he said. "All I can do is dig and pull someone out."
'Whole area ... is unsafe'
Officials warned La Conchita residents on Wednesday that the danger of more mudslides remains high, despite the return of dry, sunny weather.
Officials called a town meeting Wednesday at a Red Cross evacuation center to tell residents to stay away from their homes.
“We consider that the whole area of La Conchita is unsafe,” Ventura County Deputy Fire Chief Dave Festerling said. “We want people out of the area.”
The names of the 10 confirmed dead were read aloud at the meeting, prompting tears from residents and sheriff’s deputies alike.
But when the names of another 10 who were presumed buried were read out, two of them stood up in the room to announce that they had survived, drawing applause from the 150 or so people gathered from the tightly knit town.
By Wednesday night, officials said the eight others were finally accounted for and were alive.
One survivor, Greg Ray, made it by diving underneath two parked cars. It took rescuers three hours to dig him out.
“It was really hard to fathom that my friends right next to me were dead and I was alive,” Ray said Wednesday from his hospital bed.
Time to relocate residents?
Controversy brewed over whether La Conchita would be allowed to remain in the slide-prone area. A retaining wall built after a 1995 mudslide that covered part of the town was swept away by Monday’s mudslide, which destroyed 15 homes and damaged 16 others.
Ventura County Supervisor John Flynn said authorities planned to “discuss several policy issues” involving the town’s future.
Asked whether he thought it was reasonable to keep it open to residents, Flynn said: “We’ve got to have geologists look at this situation. I’m a layman, but they are going to talk to us about it.”
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who visited the area Wednesday morning, threw his support behind rebuilding efforts once the search and rescue operations were completed.
“In the past few days, we have seen the power of nature to cause damage and despair, but we will match that power with our own resolve,” he told reporters.
Jack Falk, 48, a longtime resident of La Conchita, said the community, located on a slip of land between steep cliffs and the Pacific Ocean, deserved to be saved.
“The amount of energy that’s being spent here right now recovering dead bodies could be put into securing this town for the people who are alive here to prevent this from happening again,” he said.