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Searching for life in a wall of mud

Rescue workers using sensitive listening devices and cadaver dogs probed for buried victims on Tuesday in a 25-foot-deep mountain of mud and debris left by Monday's mudslide as the rains finally ended and desperate family members kept vigil.

Bob Roper, the Ventura County fire chief, said Tuesday afternoon that monitoring equipment was still picking up faint sounds of life from the debris pile, raising the possibility of survivors.

"We're looking for any movement," Capt. Conrad Quintana of the county Fire Department said. "A part of an arm. A finger tapping. A cough. Someone crying. Any indication someone is alive in there."

The missing included the wife and three children of Jimmie Wallet, a carpenter who left them briefly on Monday just before a 500-foot-high rain-saturated hillside above this tiny coastal hamlet collapsed.

"He was running toward the mountain while people were running away from it," said Wallet's mother, Linda Silva, who came to La Conchita on Tuesday to watch rescue efforts and await word of her daughter-in-law and grandchildren. "He ran up there and started digging with his hands. He was yelling, "I have to get my kids! My kids!"'

She said she had tried repeatedly to call her daughter-in-law's mobile telephone, hoping that the sound of the ringing would lead rescuers to the trapped family. But she received a message saying the phone's voice mailbox was full.

Rescuers pulled three more bodies from the mud on Tuesday, bringing the death count to six.

The collapse of the hillside here was a deadly coda to five days of merciless rains across Southern California that have left 20 dead and driven thousands from their homes under threat of floods and mudslides.

Even as skies cleared on Tuesday, 4,000 people were evacuated from the banks of a surging creek miles to the south, in the Orange County communities of San Juan Capistrano and Dana Point. Glendale Community College was closed because of the threat of mudslides, and a hiker who had been trapped for three days in a cave by raging floodwaters in the San Bernardino Mountains was rescued by helicopter.

Among the dead across the region were a man whose body was found wedged in a tree in a canyon, a woman who was run over by her husband, who could not see her in the driving rain, and an 18-year-old woman who was killed when her car hit a fallen tree. Here in La Conchita, where an estimated 13 people were missing, 14 people were also injured, two of them critically, and roughly half of the town's houses were destroyed or badly damaged. Dozens of roads around the area, including Highway 101 along the coast in both directions between Ventura and Santa Barbara, remained closed because of mud or deep standing water.

The National Weather Service said 17 inches of rain had fallen in downtown Los Angeles since Dec. 27, more than in any other 15-day period on record. The latest storm, which began Thursday afternoon, dumped 8 inches of rain on La Conchita, 11.4 inches on Beverly Hills and an astonishing 31.25 inches on a spot called Opids Camp in the mountains above Los Angeles.

In La Conchita, about 100 rescue workers, including some state prison inmates in orange jumpsuits, dug through the mud in an increasingly gloomy search for any survivors.

Wallet, the carpenter, was allowed to return to the mud pile covering the house where he and his family had been staying with friends after pleading with the police on Tuesday morning to let him back in. The police had stopped him, saying no residents would be allowed to participate in the search. He grew frantic and tried to run past a barricade. The police handcuffed and detained him briefly before letting him in to help guide searchers to the house.

The house was owned by Charles Womack, 51, whose body was pulled from the debris on Monday.

Wallet's wife, Michelle, and daughters Hannah, 10, Raven, 6, and Paloma, 3, were in the house when he went to the store Monday afternoon for ice cream just before the hillside came crashing down in a terrifying 15 seconds of ruin. A fourth daughter, Jasmine, 16, was staying with friends in Ventura on Monday.

Jimmie Wallet raced back toward his house. "He didn't move quick enough," said his friend Ross Keck, a construction worker from Ventura who had come here to help. "Hopefully, there's a chance they're still alive in there. Either that or he's lost everything that matters."

Wallet's mother said she had asked AT&T to clear her daughter-in-law's cell phone mailbox to allow the phone to ring.

Roper said the way the debris had fallen left rescuers with a hope of finding survivors. "We are still finding concealed spaces large enough to live in and survive," he said. "We have not given up hope on any of the people."

He said a mandatory evacuation of La Conchita had not been ordered because officials had no sign that the mountain was coming down. Monitoring equipment installed after the last major slide, in 1995, had not indicated movement.

"I don't believe there's anything else we could have done," he said. "This area is known to us and known to the residents as unstable. At this point I don't see that we could have predicted this at all."

Brie Brazelton, 24, whose fiance is the son of Charles Womack, cried as she looked at the damage and said, "There's nothing I can (expletive) do. They're under all that dirt."

Brazelton wandered away from the site clutching a carved wooden spoon of hers that she found when rescue workers escorted her to what remained of her town.

"I'm finding the most random stuff," she said in tears. "Why did this make it and the Wallets didn't?"

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Mudslide season

A mudslide in La Conchita, Calif., on Monday killed five people, injured 14 and left 13 people missing. Weather conditions in the Pacific Ocean and more rainfall than usual in Sourhern California have made mudslides possible. Mudslides are common in almost every state and cause up to $2-billion in damage and 25 to 50 deaths annually in the United States. They occur naturally but can also be caused by land mismanagement and development.

Low pressure system in upper atmosphere

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Stream of moist air

Rainfall

Two inches of rain in a 24 hour period weighs about 10 pounds in a square foot of soil.

Mudslides

Contain more water than landslides. Can move up to 22 mph.

Road

Roads cutting into a hillside interupt the downhill flow of rainwater through the soil.

Soil

Vegetation and root systems provide resistance to soil sliding down a hillside. Wildfires, development, excessive snowfall and rainfall can all weaken soil's resistance to gravity.

Slip plane or weathered rock

Where soil meets bedrock. Watersaturated soil can lubricate this layer, causing soil to slide off.

Bedrock

Porous bedrock, like limestone, drains water faster. Impermeable bedrock, like granite, keeps water in the soil.

Warnings: Residents of areas prone to mudslides should be especially aware during intense storms. Some of the warning signs:

+ Decks, patios, telephone poles, fences or trees shifting.

+ Unusual sounds, like trees cracking or boulders knocking together.

+ A sudden increase or decrease in water flow in nearby streams or channels, or if water changes quickly from clear to muddy.

+ Drivers should look out for collapsed pavement, mud or fallen rocks.

Southern California's wettest rainfall seasons

Yearly totals in inches, recorded in downtown Los Angeles

1883-84 38.18

1889-90 34.84

1977-78 33.44

1940-41 32.76

1982-83 31.28

1997-98 31.01

1968-69 27.47

1992-93 27.36

1979-80 26.98

1892-93 26.28

1951-52 26.21

1994-95 24.35

1913-14 23.65

1937-38 23.43

1936-37 22.41

(As of Jan. 10)

2004-05 22.35

Sources: ESRI, GDT, Associated Press, wildfirenews. com, the American Red Cross, University of California at Santa Barbara, weatherunderground.com

Rescue workers in yellow suits drop cameras and listening devices into the rubble as they search for survivors Tuesday amid the wreckage of homes in La Conchita, Calif. Ten people have been rescued but an estimated 13, including three children, are unaccounted for.

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