Man's search for his family after mudslide ends in grief

Thursday, January 13, 2005

LA CONCHITA, Calif. -- Jimmie Wallet went out for ice cream, and when he got back, everyone and everything he had left behind were gone.

On Wednesday, he identified the bodies of his wife and three of his daughters, pulled from a tangle of homes smashed by a mudslide.

No one lost more than Wallet in Monday's mudslide, which has killed at least 10 people in this oceanside community. And, driven by the frantic hope of finding his family, no one was as quick to claw through the debris and help pull out survivors.

Wallet dug for hours in the rain around where he thought the family might be. He helped rescue two people before he stopped and waited, smoking cigarettes as friends stopped by to embrace him. Early Wednesday, after 36 hours, his wait ended.

Finding Mechelle

His wife, Mechelle, was the first to be found. Around 2 a.m., firefighters and several of Wallet's friends carried her to the makeshift morgue at the town's gas station. Wallet went in and identified her, then returned to the porch of a peach stucco house where he had been staying, put up his feet and sat without a word.

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.

The three girls were found next to each other. Rescue workers standing atop the ruins silently leaned on their shovels.

"They never had a chance to get out," said Scott Hall, a battalion chief with Ventura County Fire Department. "It appeared they were sitting on a couch unaware of the slide."

His fourth daughter, a 16-year-old, had been in nearby Ventura when the slide happened.

Six people were still listed as missing in the mudslide.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger viewed the damage by helicopter Wednesday. "It's extraordinary the way people have come together here from the moment the mudslides hit," he said.

The rainstorm that triggered the slide continued to bedevil the West, causing floods that destroyed houses in Arizona and Utah, washed out roads and forced dozens of people from their homes. No serious injuries were reported, but one man was missing in Utah.

As workers searched for the missing in LaConchita, Wallet said that he moved to this free-spirited beach town 70 miles northwest of Los Angeles from Ventura. The family lived in a household of 10, including Charles Womack, a 51-year-old musician also killed in the mudslide.

Wallet, a 37-year-old construction worker who has thick dreadlocks and is nicknamed "Gator," said they played music and hung out on an old bus with a rooftop patio. Engraved over his home's front gate were the words "Music is love."

Residents of La Conchita said Wallet sang with his kids, took them to the beach and walked around town with Hannah on his shoulders. His wife stayed home with the children and was "powerful, such a rock," said Vera Long, who lived three houses down.

"They were incredibly beautiful children. They had these sparkling, intelligent, deeply soulful eyes. Just incredibly loving," Long said. "The only comfort I can derive is that they were all together."

Jimmie Wallet had been returning home Monday when days of soaking rain triggered the mudslide. He watched the torrent curve toward his block and ran home, only to find it smothered. Officials said the house was broken apart, pushed for about 100 yards and covered with about six feet of mud.

Instinct took over and he began to dig. Fire officials credited him with helping map out likely locations of destroyed homes.

"The most frustrating part was that he couldn't do more," said fire Capt. Conrad Quintana.

When Wallet returned late Monday night with six friends, rescue workers let them dig five hours in the rain around where they thought the family might be.

After leaving to rest Tuesday morning, Wallet returned to dig, but was stopped by authorities and handcuffed after he crossed police lines. Rescue workers had changed shifts and did not recognize him. He was released after authorities realized who he was.

Associated Press National Writer Pauline Arrillaga contributed to this report.

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