10 confirmed dead in mudslide

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LA CONCHITA, Calif. – Rescuers searching with shovels, their bare hands and tiny video cameras dropped into holes found the bodies of a woman and three of her children before dawn Wednesday, bringing the death toll from a mudslide in this seaside hamlet to 10, officials said.

Ventura County Fire Capt. Danny Rodriguez said the bodies were found as crews worked around the clock for a second straight night, swarming over the debris pile under a clear sky and powerful lights.

The four dead were the wife and three daughters of La Conchita resident Jimmie Wallet, Ventura County sheriff’s chaplain Ron Matthews told The Associated Press.

The storms also were blamed for flooding that destroyed houses in Arizona and Utah.

Twelve people were still listed as missing after Monday’s 30-foot-deep mudslide, which was triggered by five days of nearly nonstop rain. But officials said that number was expected to be reduced to eight to reflect the discovery of the mother and children. With the 10 known dead at La Conchita, the storm’s toll in California since Friday rose to 25.

Wallet had been among the most visible of the town’s residents since the slide as he frantically searched alongside firefighters for his 37-year-old wife, Mechelle, and daughters Hannah, 10, Raven, 6, and Paloma, 2.

After the bodies were found, friends took him out of town with his 16-year-old daughter. Wallet was out getting ice cream when the slide hit, while his teen daughter was in Ventura.

“I’m very pleased with the hard work and all the effort in finding my family,” Wallet said in a statement relayed by Matthews.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger planned to visit the area Wednesday.

The days of torrential rain also triggered fatal traffic accidents all across the state, knocked out power to hundreds of thousands, imperiled hillside homes and caused flash floods.

In La Conchita, firefighters remained hopeful they might still find at least some people alive.

By early Wednesday, no new sounds had been heard under the rubble for more than 24 hours. Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper said teams would continue looking and listening for signs of life.

“We’re still finding voids,” he said, referring to air pockets survivors could use to breathe. “We’re still going to continue this as a search and rescue operation.”

Crews were bringing in a radar device Wednesday to scan into the debris pile, he said.

Ten people were injured in the slide, which came down like a curving, rolling waterfall onto the tiny town between Highway 101 and a coastal bluff.

Fifteen homes were destroyed and 16 were damaged. Roper said the slide rolled homes over and intermixed debris, hindering efforts to identify the rubble of specific houses.

The painstaking search through layer upon layer of muck was made more difficult by the jumble of building wreckage mixed with the mud. Rescuers tried to carefully scoop out parts of the pile to make sure they checked sections of trapped air where a survivor might be able to breathe. The tiny video cameras were inserted into voids.