Jimmie Wallet went out for ice cream. When he got back, everyone and everything he had left behind were gone. Yesterday, he identified the bodies of his wife and three of his daughters...
LA CONCHITA, Calif. — Jimmie Wallet went out for ice cream. When he got back, everyone and everything he had left behind were gone.
Yesterday, he identified the bodies of his wife and three of his daughters, pulled from a tangle of homes smashed by a mudslide.
No one lost more than Wallet in Monday’s mudslide, which killed at least 10 people in the oceanside community of La Conchita. And, driven by the frantic hope of finding his family, no one was as quick to claw through the debris and help pull out survivors.
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Wallet dug for hours in the rain around where he thought the family might be. He helped rescue two people before he stopped and waited, smoking cigarettes as friends stopped by to embrace him. Yesterday, after 36 hours, his wait ended.
His wife, Mechelle, was the first to be found. Around 2 a.m., firefighters and several of Wallet’s friends carried her to the makeshift morgue at the town’s gas station. Wallet went in and identified her and then returned to the porch of a peach stucco house where he had been staying, and sat without a word.
Two hours later, his youngest daughter, 2-year-old Paloma, was taken out on a stretcher. Her sister Raven, 6, was next, soon followed by 10-year-old Hannah.
The three girls were found next to each other, apparently sitting on a couch when the slide broke apart their house, pushing it for about 100 yards and covering it in muck.
“They never had a chance to get out,” said Scott Hall, a battalion chief with Ventura County Fire Department.
His fourth daughter, a 16-year-old, had been in nearby Ventura when the slide happened.
At least three people were missing. The number of missing slowly dropped yesterday as more bodies were found and residents on the missing list either showed up at a town meeting or got in touch with authorities.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger viewed the damage by helicopter yesterday and declared a state of emergency in the county. “It’s extraordinary the way people have come together here from the moment the mudslides hit,” he said.
The rainstorm that triggered the slide continued to bedevil the West, causing floods that destroyed houses in Arizona and Utah, washed out roads and forced dozens of people from their homes. No serious injuries were reported, but one man was missing in Utah. A skier was missing for a third day in rugged western Colorado.
In Utah, Jenny Olsen tuned in to the news to watch the home she and her husband had inhabited since September fall into the Santa Clara River. The home was one of five on a cul-de-sac devoured by the record floodwaters that have ravaged southern Utah since Monday.
“When I saw it I couldn’t believe it. Still can’t,” Olsen said yesterday from a St. George hotel room. “We thought we might lose the back yard. We never thought that the whole house would go. We lost everything.”
In Arizona, flooding damaged or destroyed 22 homes in Beaver Dam and nearby Littlefield, said Jennifer McNally, a county health official.
In California, the overall death toll was 28 as of yesterday.
Crews using dogs, cameras and microphones intended to keep searching for survivors in La Conchita and then reassess the rescue operation tonight.
The massive mound of mud covered blocks and stood 30 feet high in some spots. A pickup looked as if it had been in an explosion. Other cars and mobile homes were crushed.
Wallet said he moved to La Conchita, 70 miles northwest of Los Angeles, from Ventura in search of an easier life.
The family lived in a household of 10, including Charles Womack, a 51-year-old musician also killed in the mudslide.
Wallet, a 37-year-old carpenter who has thick dreadlocks and is nicknamed “Gator,” worked construction jobs with Womack and was staying with him to help save money, said Larry Gallardo, another friend.
Wallet said they played music and hung out on an old bus with a rooftop patio. Engraved over the home’s front gate were the words “Music is love.”
Residents of La Conchita said Wallet sang with his kids, took them to the beach and walked around town with them. His wife stayed home with the children and was “powerful, such a rock,” said Vera Long, who lived three houses down. “They were incredibly beautiful children. They had these sparkling, intelligent, deeply soulful eyes. Just incredibly loving,” Long said. “The only comfort I can derive is that they were all together.”
Jimmie Wallet had been returning home Monday when days of soaking rain triggered the mudslide. He watched the torrent curve toward his block and ran home, only to find it smothered. Fire officials credited him with helping map out likely locations of destroyed homes. “The most frustrating part was that he couldn’t do more,” said fire Capt. Conrad Quintana.
Associated Press writers Ken Ritter, Jeremiah Marquez and Pauline Arrillaga contributed to this report.