Friday, January 14, 2005

Survivor recalls running from falling mountain

Excerpt from CNN

'We looked up and the mountain just spewed'

Thursday, January 13, 2005 Posted: 4:59 PM EST (2159 GMT)

VENTURA, California (AP) -- What Greg Ray remembers is seeing a mountain come down on him.

What he doesn't understand is why he survived while two of his friends died in a torrent of liquid earth that buried homes in the hamlet of La Conchita.

"I lost people that I love and the only reason that I'm alive ... I don't know," Ray, 61, said Wednesday from his bed at Ventura County Medical Center.

The death toll had risen to 10 early Wednesday with the discovery of the bodies of a mother and her three children buried in the mud. Later in the day, authorities announced that all those on a list of those reported missing were finally accounted for.

A search for anyone else who might have been in the area was halted Thursday after a muddy area at the base of the towering bluff shifted 6 feet during the early morning, workers said. A geologist was inspecting the area. (Search ends)

Ray had stopped to help a friend move out from a home at the base of the hillside. After five days of drenching rain, residents were worried: A mudslide in 1995 buried nine houses in 600,000 tons of mud.

"We knew the mountain was coming down," Ray said, but no one knew when.
He could see trailer gaining on him

Ray said he was helping load camera gear into a car Monday when another neighbor, John Morgan, suddenly shouted a warning.

"He yelled at us and said, 'The mountain's coming down -- get out of there now!' We looked up and the mountain just spewed. He saved my life," Ray said.

Dirt and boulders spilled down the hillside, hit a berm and exploded back up into a plume of earth towering 100 feet over the three friends, Ray recalled. The men sprinted down the street and turned into a second street, desperately trying to outrun the roaring mudslide.

Ray said that as he ran down the street, he could see a trailer was gaining on him, pushed along by the flowing debris.

"It was up in the air and turned over. The top of the trailer was coming down on me," he said.

He dove into a space between two parked cars seconds before the trailer and mud overtook him, crushing the cars "down to the wheels," Ray said.

In the tiny, pitch-dark crawl space, Ray realized his right leg was seriously injured -- he would later learn that a giant splinter of wood from a broken two-by-four had torn into it.

The leg was numb and "I didn't know whether it was pulverized," he said. His chest was bruised, he had trouble breathing and he had lost a front tooth.
'It tears these cars up like they're toys'

Rescuers found Ray within minutes, but it took three hours to dig him out, he said. During the agonizing wait, Ray snapped a photo of himself with a disposable camera.

He didn't learn until Tuesday -- after surgery to repair his leg -- that his companions, Morgan and Tony Alvis, were found crushed to death in the debris.

The massive mound of mud covered several blocks and stood 30 feet high in some spots. One man, Jimmie Wallett, lost his wife and three of his daughters.

Wallett dug for hours in the rain around where he thought his family might be. He helped rescue two people before his wait finally ended Wednesday.

His wife, Mechelle, was the first to be found. Two hours later, his youngest daughter, 2-year-old Paloma, was taken out on a stretcher. Her sister Raven, 6, was next, soon followed by 10-year-old Hannah.

A distraught Wallet returned to La Conchita late Wednesday even after his family was recovered, saying he wanted to continue helping with the search. He was turned away by officers who said they feared for his safety.

The scene Wednesday was of devastation.

Scattered in the mud were a variety of household items, including surfboards, dish towels, golf clubs and canceled checks. A pickup truck looked like it had been in an explosion. Other cars and mobile homes were crushed.

"It tears these cars up like they're toys," Los Angeles County fire Capt. Greg Cleveland said.

Ray said that he was devastated by the loss, but added that he was cheered by the way La Conchita and rescue workers pulled together in crisis.

"They made a really good situation -- how they helped each other," he said. "Everyone involved was just like angels."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who visited La Conchita on Wednesday, also praised residents, saying, "It's extraordinary the way people have come together here from the moment the mudslides hit. People rushed to the aid of their neighbors, helping each other escape the danger and trying to find survivors."

Ray, who has lived in La Conchita on and off for 10 years, said Wednesday he blamed an irrigated avocado farm at the top of the hillside for the mudslide's devastation.

Angry homeowners sued the bluff-top ranch owner, La Conchita Ranch Co., after the 1995 mudslide, alleging the farm weakened the bluff by overwatering its avocado groves.

Conchita Ranch Co. settled the suit two years later for an undisclosed amount.

The county eventually put up a $400,000 retaining wall. The wall collapsed immediately under Monday's slide, but officials said it had only been intended to stop debris, not another mudslide.

"My gut feeling is that my best friend died and a lot of really good people died and there was no reason for them to die," Ray said.

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