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Waves of mud kill at least 7 in Calif.

Rescue workers slowly unearth bodies from mountain camps, and hold out hope that the nine people still missing may be found alive.

By Wire services
Published December 27, 2003


SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. - Searchers slogging through waist-high muck found seven people dead Friday and looked for at least nine others missing after mudslides engulfed two camps in the San Bernardino Mountains in a torrent of soil, boulders and tree trunks.

The mudslides were set off on Thursday after a downpour fell on hillsides that had been stripped of vegetation by wildfires in October and November. With nothing to hold the soil in place, trees and rocks went roaring down the hillsides, along with the dark-brown mud.

"I thought I was going to die," said Brian Delaney, 19, who was trapped up to his neck before rescuers pulled him out of the mud that crashed into the recreation center at a trailer-home encampment in Devore.

Two bodies were found near the trailer camp, San Bernardino County authorities said, and 32 trailers were destroyed. No one else was missing there, said sheriff's Deputy Kris Phillips.

Five bodies were found below a Greek Orthodox retreat, the Saint Sophia Camp. Twenty-eight people were believed to have been spending Christmas Day with the camp's caretaker when the wall of mud swept away two buildings. Fourteen of the people were rescued Thursday.

Finding people caught in the mudslides was time-consuming because victims could have been washed far down the canyon, county sheriff's spokesman "The area is so big. There was so much water, so much force. We're talking about a massive flash flood that has gone miles," Patterson said.

Patterson cautioned that it was not certain that the bodies recovered in Waterman Canyon were from the camp. The coroner's office was trying to identify the bodies Friday night.

Most structures at Saint Sophia Camp, built on a plateau at the upper end of the canyon, were unscathed. But the two cabins at the camp that were swept from their foundations splintered to pieces under a crush of earth and rock. A gas line at the camp resembled a geyser on Friday, spitting fumes and water 15 feet into the air. The hillside east of the 66-acre camp was devoid of vegetation, and boulders there remained charred from the fires of October.

"These folks had no warning," said county fire spokeswoman Tracey Martinez. "It just happened. According to the survivors we've spoken to they didn't even know it was coming until it was there."

Temperatures fell rapidly at dusk and the National Weather Service issued a frost advisory. Patterson said the search would go on through the night.

"We have no reason to think we can't find survivors and I hope we will," Patterson said. "We're not even close to giving up."

In the Devore area, on the east side of the Cajon Pass running between the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountain ranges, rainfall totaled 4.39 inches, according to the National Weather Service. On the San Gabriel side of the pass, 8.57 inches of rain fell.

On Friday, with the roads and bridges washed out, sheriff's deputies and firefighters climbed over or around rocks and fallen trees to resume the search at the camp in Waterman Canyon, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles. The mud was 12 to 15 feet deep in places.

Searchers tried to find victims by poking the mud with long poles.

"It's sort of like going through an avalanche," Patterson said. "It's pretty tedious, but that's how we're doing it."

County Fire Marshal Peter Brierty said rescuers faced "incredibly mushy, muddy, slippery" conditions, with some slipping into the mud up to their hips.

"Even a foot or 2 feet of this will knock you down," he said.

The caretaker of the church camp, George Monzon, was among the missing, said the Rev. John Bakas.

The leader of Greek Orthodox Christians in seven Western states, Metropolitan Anthony of San Francisco, called for prayers and expressed hope for "positive results" from the search.

The trailer campground had a number of permanent residents. One of them, Delaney, said about 30 people had gathered in the recreation center because they were nervous about the heavy rain. After the power went out, rocks and other debris came crashing through the door.

Mud soon filled the center and Delaney and others broke the windows to escape.

"I tried to pull two ladies out," he said. "There were kids sitting on the pool table, and the pool table was almost up to the ceiling on the mud."

Once outside, Delaney got stuck in mud up to his neck and had to shed his clothing so rescuers could pull him out.

"I'm lucky to be alive," he said.

- Information from the New York Times was added to this report.

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