- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 27, 2003

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — Searchers slogging through waist-high muck found seven persons dead yesterday and looked for at least 10 others missing after mudslides engulfed two camps in the San Bernardino Mountains in a terrifying torrent of soil, boulders and tree trunks.

The missing included nine children, ages 6 months to 16 years, who had been at a Greek Orthodox youth camp.

The mudslides were set off on Christmas Day after as much as 31/2 inches of rain fell on hillsides that had been stripped of vegetation by wildfires in October and November. With nothing to hold the soil in place, trees and rocks went roaring down the hillsides, along with the mud.

“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 center at a trailer-home encampment in Devore.

Two bodies were found near the trailer camp, San Bernardino County authorities said, and 32 trailers were destroyed. No one else was missing there, said sheriff’s Deputy Kris Phillips.

Five other bodies were found near the Greek Orthodox retreat, the St. Sophia Camp. Twenty-eight persons were believed to have been spending Christmas Day with the camp’s caretaker when the wall of mud smashed into two cabins. Fourteen of the people were rescued on Christmas Day.

“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.”

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 12 to 15 feet deep in places.

Searchers tried to find victims by poking the mud with long poles.

“It’s sort of like going through an avalanche,” sheriff’s spokesman Chip Patterson said. “It’s pretty tedious, but that’s how we’re doing it.”

County Fire Marshal Peter Brierty said rescuers faced “incredibly mushy, muddy, slippery” conditions, with some slipping into the mud up to their hips. “Even a foot or two feet of this will knock you down,” he said.

The caretaker of the church camp, George Monzon, was among the missing, said the Rev. John Bakas, who helps lead the retreat.

Also among the missing there were a 7-year-old girl and her mother, the girl’s aunt said. The missing woman’s husband, Gilberto Juarez, saved their 3-year-old daughter, Stephanie, and they were among those taken to a hospital on Christmas. But he could not reach his wife, Rosa, 40, and daughter Katrine.

“He said he helped the little girl up and when he turned they were gone, the water had risen too much and had swept the cabin away,” said Mr. Juarez’s sister-in-law, Mildred Najara. “They became separated when the water rushed in.”

The trailer campground had a number of permanent residents. One of them, Mr. Delaney, said about 30 persons had gathered in the recreation center because they were nervous about the heavy rain. After the power went out, rocks and other debris came crashing through the door.

Mud soon filled the center and Mr. Delaney and others broke the windows to escape.

“I tried to pull two ladies out,” he said. “There were kids sitting on the pool table, and the pool table was almost up to the ceiling on the mud.

“I’m lucky to be alive,” he said.


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