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Paradise Lost in La Conchita

Without warning, a hillside collapses, sweeping away lives, homes and dreams.

January 11, 2005|Richard Fausset, Erika Hayasaki and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

The noise came with no warning, so loud it drowned out the video game Pedro Leon was playing with his 9-year old cousin.

To Pedro, 16, it sounded like someone outside his bedroom was dumping a massive bucket of rocks. Terrified, he threw his cousin onto the bed and got on top of him, hoping to protect Angel from whatever could make such a terrible sound.

He watched the walls sway as the floor somehow stayed still. When it was over, nearly half of his family's small rented house was gone. Mud spilled into the kitchen and his mother's bedroom.

Outside, a 20-foot-thick slough of mud, rocks, trees and debris had consumed much of his street -- the second time in a decade a landslide had devastated La Conchita, a town two blocks deep and 10 blocks long nestled between the Ventura Freeway and steep bluffs.

The hillside gave way in an instant. Telephone and power poles popped from the sodden ground. Homes in the mudslide's path that weren't swallowed were left twisted and misshapen.

Neighbors could hear the screams even before the rumble subsided. One girl yelled: "It's coming down!" said Joyce Cariera, who watched from outside her house on Zelzah Avenue.

To Roberta Ski, 50, the moment seemed surreal. It looked, she said, "like someone [was] pouring chocolate milk out of a cup onto a bunch of little hotels on a Monopoly board."

The search for those who did not walk away began immediately. Neighbors and relatives clambered over wreckage, listening for voices, shouting names. "Hey, hey, we've got kids down here!" yelled one man as he walked across a flattened rooftop.

Rescue workers, summoned earlier to a lesser slide a few blocks away, appeared. By late afternoon, more than 100 rescuers, include three urban search and rescue teams, were digging through the mud.

Ellen Frew, 48, ran toward the mudslide to look for her sons, Russell Allen, 17, and Eric Allen, 18. She found them, then yelled at them to check on an uncle who lives nearby. It turned out he was OK too.

The Allen brothers, covered waist-deep in mud, searched for survivors as the smell of natural gas filled the air.

"A lot of people were trapped," said Russell. He followed the yelling. Peering into the debris of one house, he discovered a woman. "I saw her hand and her face," he said. "She was in shock.

"We could hear someone else in the back [of the house]. They said they were hurt but OK," he said. "I told her [the woman he saw] to stay calm." Then Russell told her to breathe through her shirt because the gas was so thick. He waited with them until rescue workers could pull them out.

"Our town is pretty small," Russell said. "You know everybody and everybody is supposed to help each other out. "

Three people were confirmed dead in the slide. At least seven were pulled to safety, some seriously injured.

"They are using listening devices, dogs, shovels, chain saws," said Ventura County Fire Department Battalion Chief Keith Mashburn. "When they get to the roof of a house, they cut through with chain saws."

At least two residents clawed free of the rubble on their own, emerging dazed, coated in the brown mud.

Fears for the missing spread quickly in the tightknit community, where most people lived in modest one-story homes or trailers.

On the street, rumor mixed with facts.

"What about John?" someone asked.

"Old John?"

"John's buried and Bill's buried," another person offered.

"No, I saw Bill," said another. "Bill's not buried."

Ernie Garcia, 78, a retired buyer for Lockheed, heard rumors that Tony Alvis, 51, known for taking people on pack trips and taking his mules to Santa Barbara's Fiesta Parade, was dead. He ran into Alvis' mother, Millie, and brother, Dan, searching.

"His mother was crying. So was his brother," Garcia said. "What could I say?"

No official word on Alvis' fate came, even as the search was called off for safety reasons at 9 p.m. Friends had already gathered, as if at a wake, to tell tales about him.

Up to a dozen residents, including some children, remained missing. About 15 homes, nearly a quarter of the town, were destroyed or seriously damaged.

Earlier in the evening, those waiting for news listened intently for clues to who had been found.

Occasionally, a public address system set up on a firetruck barked out crackly messages for the rescue workers: "Do we have any part of the body that's visible so we can get a line in there?"

Many feared for a man named Charlie Womack, a construction worker who lived in a teepee in front of his large house, where family and friends stayed.

The house had collapsed on top of neighbor Vanessa Bryson's. Friends watched as firefighters clad in yellow rain jackets moved up the 25-foot pile of rubble with chain saws, axes and shovels.

"Some people said he was home," said Rose Deacon, 23, who quizzed everyone she saw about Womack's fate. "Others said he was out hiking," she said. "But I don't think he'd be out hiking on a day like this."

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