Rescuers found the bodies of seven people and continued searching for at least nine others missing since mudslides engulfed two camps in southern California.
The mudslides in the San Bernardino Mountains on Christmas Day brought a terrifying torrent of soil, boulders and tree trunks following a downpour on hillsides already stripped of vegetation by wildfires in October and November.
“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 centre at a trailer-home encampment in Devore.
Two bodies were found yesterday near the trailer camp, San Bernardino County authorities said.
One was identified by county authorities as Janice Arlene Stout-Bradley, 60. Residents said she was the camp ground manager.
Five bodies were found below a Greek Orthodox retreat, the Saint Sophia Camp. Twenty-seven people were believed to have been spending Christmas Day with the camp’s caretaker when the wall of mud swept away two buildings on one side of the camp. Fourteen of the people were rescued on Christmas Day.
Finding people caught in the mudslides was time-consuming because victims could have been washed far down the canyon, county sheriff’s spokesman Chip Patterson said.
“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 even,” he said.
Most structures at Saint Sophia Camp, built on a plateau at the upper end of the canyon, were unscathed. A bench was left sticking out of the muck downstream, and a swing set lay on its side.
“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 for the region.
In the Devore area, on the east side of the Cajon Pass running between the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountain ranges, rainfall totaled 4.39ins, according to the National Weather Service. On the San Gabriel side of the pass, 8.57ins.
Yesterday, with the roads and bridges washed out, sheriff’s deputies and firefighters had to hike over the rough terrain and climb 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 12ft to 15ft deep in places.