Approaching storm renews mudslide threat in California

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. -- A new Pacific storm churned toward Southern California on Monday, bringing the threat of more flash floods and mudslides in the mountains where torrents of mud on Christmas Day killed 14 people and left two missing.

The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning through this evening for the San Bernardino Mountains, scene of the tragedies. One to 3 inches of rain were expected to begin falling Monday night.

"The bad news is, it's already rained up there, so the soil's already saturated," said forecaster Stuart Seto. "It probably can't hold much more."

No evacuations were ordered, but firefighters passed out sandbags and authorities warned residents to be prepared.

The mudslides last week were set off when torrential rain streamed down hillsides that had been burned bare by wildfires in the fall.

Searchers continued to look for the bodies of two children missing since mud, boulders and tree trunks swept through the St. Sophia Camp in Waterman Canyon. The number of deaths at the Greek Orthodox camp rose to 12 Sunday with the recovery of five bodies, including that of the caretaker.

Two other people died the same day when a flood swept through a trailer campground about five miles away in Devore.

The caretaker of the church camp, Jorge Monzon, 41, and his wife, Clara, 40, apparently had invited friends and family to celebrate Christmas at the retreat. Many of the guests were Guatemalan immigrants who attended a San Bernardino church.

The bodies of Monzon's two daughters were recovered during the weekend. His baby son was missing, along with a teenage boy.

"To find the other two would be good for the families," said sheriff's spokesman Chip Patterson. "If the rains come before that, obviously we're going to shut this operation down. We can't search in the rain, it's too dangerous."

The bodies of two children found Sunday had washed down from the camp and were tangled in debris more than four miles below, in a cement catch basin in downtown San Bernardino, Patterson said.

The caretaker, his wife and another woman were found closer to the camp. It took a bulldozer and other heavy equipment to dig them from the deep mud.

Monzon lived at the camp with his family in a two-room apartment. He did not have permission to hold the gathering, said the Rev. John Bakas, dean of St. Sophia Cathedral of Los Angeles.

"Having 20, 25 people there without our knowledge was something we would not have encouraged," he said. "None us knew. It's one thing to have your uncle and your aunt over. It's another thing to be using the extended grounds and facilities unsupervised."

Bakas and a few members of the congregation went to the camp Monday to pray for those who died.

"We're devastated," he said. "We are a faith community committed to try to do what we can to try to make some sense of this."

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