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Man's search for family ends tragically

Jimmie Wallet's worst fears were confirmed in the darkness of early morning.

Frantic and exhausted after more than 36 hours of searching for his wife and three of his daughters in the rubble of La Conchita's fallen mountain, Wallet absorbed the full weight of the calamity when searchers found the body of his wife, Michelle, before dawn Wednesday.

An hour later, the body of one of the girls was found nearby. Next, the body of a second daughter. Then a third.

The authorities think there are at least three more people buried in the wreckage.

"The kids," muttered Capt. Drue Holthe of the Montecito Fire Department, who has been working on the pile of mud, wrecked homes and crushed automobiles since the palisade succumbed on Monday afternoon to the rain that had drenched Southern California for almost a week.

"It's really hard," the captain said. "We're all family men. Your children are the dearest things in your life."

The unearthing of Michelle Wallet, 36, and the three girls, Hannah, 10, Raven, 6, and Paloma, 2, brought to 10 the number of confirmed dead since the hill collapsed, burying about 15 houses and damaging an additional 16. A fourth daughter, Jasmine, 16, lives in Ventura.

For Wallet, 38, a lean, itinerant carpenter, it was the worst kind of disaster after a string of misfortunes.

Four months ago, he was on the drift, with no home or solid job prospects, when he and his family were taken in by Charly Womack, a fellow carpenter and builder with a home in La Conchita.

Womack died in the landslide.

As the search for survivors and victims continued on Wednesday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger flew over the scene in a military helicopter and then landed for closer inspection. The governor, accompanied by an entourage, walked to the edge of the landslide and declared Ventura County a disaster area.

Under an unusually clear and blue sky, Schwarzenegger, wearing a leather jacket, khakis and alligator boots embossed with his official seal, peered into a hole and spoke a few words of encouragement to rescue workers whose hands were chapped and bloody from digging through the clay.

"The key thing is that we clean up this mess here as quickly as possible and we find the people who are still missing," Schwarzenegger said. "Hopefully some of them we still find alive."

In a meeting of La Conchita residents Wednesday morning at a Red Cross evacuation center in Ventura, south of here, some people wept as the names of the 10 confirmed dead were read aloud. But then, when the names of the presumed missing were mentioned, four people on the list stood to say they were present and fine, said Janelle Beck, 47, a resident who attended.

She called it "the best news so far." Asked whether she intended to move from La Conchita now that its status as a danger zone had been firmly established, Beck said, "Move? How could I move? The house ain't worth anything anymore."

The scene on Wednesday in La Conchita, known for its free spirits and great surfing, was Dadaesque.

There were almost as many members of the press as rescue workers, who included orange-clad prison inmates, male and female.

"Jimmie's family is dead, Charly is dead _ it's so, so sad," said Maya Jamal, 26, a friend of the Wallets' who made music and cooked dinners and watched the sunsets with them. "The children are the hardest thing."

Funds for the Wallet and Womack families have been set up at the Santa Barbara Bank & Trust in Santa Barbara, a few miles north of here.

When the hill fell on Monday, Jimmie Wallet avoided the fate of his wife and children only because he had gone to get them ice cream.

On his way back, the bluff cracked, and his family was gone.

Wallet was there when his family was recovered. After their bodies had been placed in a liquor store that was being used as a temporary morgue, Wallet left La Conchita. When he returned, he insisted on rejoining the search for other victims, but a sheriff's deputy stopped him at a barricade.

"I just want to carry buckets," Wallet said.

"No," the deputy responded.

"Okay. Let me go get my kids' clothes."

"You could get hurt, Jimmie," the deputy said.

Wallet's reply was swift: "I don't care if I die."

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