A torrent of mud and dirt came ripping down a Ventura County hillside Saturday, crushing nine homes in the tiny coastal community of La Conchita.
The slide began shortly after 2 p.m., and residents watched in horror as a small tumble of rocks quickly grew into a mighty force.
Within minutes it had barreled down the hillside and buried three homes before spilling onto Vista del Rincon Drive northwest of Zelzah Avenue. No injuries were reported.
"There was a big roar, and it moved like soft Jell-O," said resident Norma Harrel. "It was pretty fast, but I never dreamed it would take those houses."
The slide came after weeks of growing concern among residents who feared their homes could be buried in mud. They appealed to the county for help, threatened lawsuits and debated who might be responsible if a slide occurred.
Hank Alziani, a 13-year resident whose home escaped damage Saturday, blamed the county for allowing houses to be built in what he called a dangerous spot.
"The lots were set up by the county, and, in order to build homes, people had to get permits, plan checks and inspections before building," he said. "I don't see how the county can now say they don't have any responsibility."
Standing at the base of the hill, Robert W. Anderson, principal engineer for a company hired by the county to study the stability of the hillside, said his firm had predicted a slide where Saturday's failure occurred.
"This is exactly where we thought it would come down," he said.
As a steady rain began to fall, emergency workers braced for more rolling mud by evacuating about 100 residents from a third of La Conchita's 190 homes and sending some of them to a Red Cross shelter in Ventura. On Saturday evening, an additional 10 to 15 homes were in immediate danger, and up to two more inches of rain were forecast overnight.
"The rain is only going to exacerbate the problem," said Sheriff's Deputy Chuck Buttel. "We're very concerned about that."
Working from a makeshift command post at the town's one gas station, rescue workers could only make sure everyone was safe in the tightly knit community near the Santa Barbara County line and keep their fingers crossed.
"We're waiting to see if it's going to keep moving," Buttel said. "We don't want to be put in a position of rescuing the rescuers."
Sandi Wells of the County Fire Department said officials had determined that residents of the nine damaged structures, which included two trailers, were safe. They used a list they had prepared as part of an emergency plan for the area.
An oil pipeline that ran lengthwise across the hillside was sheared in the slide, said Charles Cappel, director of Pacific Operators Offshore, the line's owner.
"The line itself had no oil in it when this occurred," Cappel said. "There's been no oil spilled at all."
Standing near a pile of earth that covered the house where he had lived with his girlfriend and daughter, Ruben Ortiz recounted his escape.
"I had just gotten out of the shower, and I just grabbed my little girl and ran outside," Ortiz said. "My girlfriend looked back up the hill and a tree disappeared. It just fell down."
Glen Sanderson was asleep in his trailer on Vista del Rincon when he was awakened by a noise outside his back window.
He saw rocks tumbling down the hill and ran outside, but went back moments later to retrieve his jacket and wallet. Just then the trailer groaned under the weight of rocks bearing down.
"Then I ran," Sanderson said. "That's the best thing I did."
Later in the day, seven residents gathered at a Red Cross shelter at the county fairgrounds in Ventura.
One of them, Lisa Brown, vowed that she, her husband and their 18-month-old daughter would not return to La Conchita.
Brown said that in recent months her family had become so concerned about the danger of a slide they had planned to move. After Saturday's slide, her husband immediately went to Santa Barbara to look for a house, Brown said.
"I would never move back" to La Conchita, she said. The slide "was our worst nightmare."
Some residents of La Conchita say they had lived in constant fear that the hillside above them would fall.
A deep gash in the center of the hill began as a tiny slide seven years ago and grew deeper and more threatening over time.
"You plan, you do everything you can, and then it happens and happens quick," said Mary Lou Olson, whose house was spared by the slide. "I'm just grateful it didn't happen in the middle of the night."
Ventura County Counsel James L. McBride said the county did everything it could to warn residents in the months before Saturday's disaster.
"The people were well educated and were well aware that this could happen," he said.
A massive 1983 slide at Big Rock Mesa in Malibu destroyed or damaged more than 250 homes, costing Los Angeles County, Caltrans and insurance companies $97 million in damages.
But McBride insisted that property owners in La Conchita must take responsibility for any damage caused by landslides.
County geologists say that preventing the slide was geologically impossible, McBride said.
Even if prevention were possible, it would be the responsibility of the La Conchita Ranch Co., which owns the hillside, McBride said.
Supervisor Maggie Kildee, whose district includes La Conchita, said she was "sick that it happened. . . . I think we've said all along that when the mountain goes there's going to be enough liability to go around for everybody."
McBride said: "It's a tragedy. We told everybody it could happen, but everybody was hoping against hope that it wouldn't."
Times correspondents Duncan Martell and Ira E. Stoll contributed to this story.
* LIABILITY QUESTION: Issue was debated long before hillside gave way. B1