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Hope Fades for Victims of Mudslides

Times Staff Writers

Slogging through debris fields of mud, rock and tree limbs, searchers found the bodies of seven people Friday who were carried away by Christmas Day landslides on the charred slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains. At least nine others remained missing, most of them children, and hope was beginning to fade.

“There’s some reality setting in for us today,” San Bernardino County Fire Marshal Peter Brierty said as he helped oversee search efforts at a church camp and, about seven miles west, a KOA campground that had been inundated by the slides. “We want to be optimistic and save lives. But time is our enemy.”

The mudslides were a tragic postscript to the fires that devastated vast swaths of forest and brushland in late October and early November. Beginning early Thursday afternoon, torrential rains unloosed tons of muck on mountainsides left barren by the fires and sent it plunging down creek beds and canyons.

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Fire and rescue officials surveying the damage Friday calculated that the slide in Waterman Canyon -- which in places had been a 6- to 12-foot wall of mud carrying boulders and entire trees -- traveled as fast as 45 mph, giving people little opportunity to get out of its way.

“It’s unbelievable up there,” Brierty said. “There are 75-foot logs stacked like matchsticks. Boulders the size of Volkswagens scattered like pebbles. Old concrete bridges knocked down because they could not take the stress of the debris flow.”

“How much energy,” he asked, “does it take to wash out a concrete bridge?”

Five of the bodies found Friday were down the slope from the St. Sophia Camp and Retreat Center, a rustic facility in the canyon that is run by the Greek Orthodox Church.

Fourteen people were rescued from the camp Thursday, but nine remained missing a day later.

Some children were apparently playing in a playground when they were swept away. Among those unaccounted for were the camp’s popular caretaker, his wife and three children.

The other two bodies were found near a KOA campsite in Devore. Fifty-two people had been rescued there overnight after being stranded by a flooded creek.

The dead were identified as Carroll Eugene Nuss, 57, and Janice Bradley, 60. Nuss was believed to have been visiting the area from Kansas; Bradley was the manager of the campground.

Beginning Friday morning, a helicopter and as many as 90 people, many accompanied by trained dogs, began searching for the missing in Waterman Canyon.

They strode along the bed of Waterman Creek, staring at the ground and peering into crevices created in debris piles, over and under logs and boulders, even into branches of trees left standing. One rescue worker could be seen yanking soggy clothing out of the muck and piling it onto a boulder. In some places, cables were drawn across the stream, which was down to a modest flow by sunrise, to ease crossings on foot.

In the hours before the slide, the camp had been the scene of a holiday party. A group mostly of Guatemalan immigrants arrived for a Christmas tamale lunch as guests of the camp’s caretaker, Jorge Monzon, and his family. After lunch, while adults cleaned up and children cavorted at a small playground near the creek, the sky darkened, and the rain, which had been falling all day, grew more intense.

About 1 p.m., Clyde Chittenden, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection battalion chief who lives in the canyon, drove by the camp on his way to a Christmas dinner. After passing the facility, he said, he looked up from his steering wheel and “saw a wall of mud coming down the creek.” At that point, he said, the mud was still in the creek channel and the camp was apparently unharmed.

But sometime before 2 p.m., the mountainside came crashing down.

Among the missing Friday were Monzon; his wife, Clara; and their three children, Wendy, 17, Racquel, 10, and Jeremiah, 6 months.

The Very Rev. John Bakas, dean of St. Sophia Cathedral in Los Angeles, agonized over the fate of the caretaker, who has worked at the camp since 1997.

“We haven’t been able to reach them,” Bakas said. “We’re terribly distressed. On Christmas Day! I still haven’t quite come to grips with it. I keep thinking it’s something that happened someplace else.”

The bodies found in Waterman Canyon were mostly in the lower half of the two-mile slide area, tangled in trees, mud and brush, making it difficult for searchers to remove them. They were not immediately identified.

The search effort was expected to last through the night, and some of those taking part said they were still looking for survivors, not bodies, despite daunting conditions that included overnight temperatures in the 20s.

“Human will, whatever you want to call it -- you can survive this,” said Jon Usle, a volunteer with San Bernardino County Search and Rescue. “With a little knowledge and some dumb luck, you can make it.”

But others sounded notes of futility. “It might be weeks until we find them,” said one San Bernardino County firefighter, who declined to give his name.

Dennis Benson, a sheriff’s search and rescue volunteer, was among those who went to the slide area Thursday night. He said the flooding ran as high as 20 feet and sounded “like a highway of water.”

He returned Friday with Kyla, a golden retriever, to search for the missing. Benson said the search was difficult because of the large area and the debris left by the massive force of the slide. “To see the damage done to the trees and the concrete,” he said, “and to imagine what that force could do to a person " His voice trailed off.

Weather officials said 3.5 inches of rain had fallen in the area Thursday. However, Bill Breer, an amateur weather observer whose home just above St. Sophia Camp is one of the few to have survived the fires, said his rain gauge showed that 6 inches had fallen during the day.

“It wasn’t the hardest rain I’ve ever seen,” added Breer, who has lived in the area since 1970. “But I’ve never seen that little creek run like that.”

The Greek Orthodox Church has operated St. Sophia Camp, which has been used for both youth and adult retreats, for about 40 years, Bakas said. When church activities are not being held, it is rented to outside community groups for retreats, conventions, weddings and other functions.

At the time of the mudslide, Bakas said, “The only authorized persons there were the caretaker and his family, who lived on the site.”

The camp had been spared by the recent fires and was the lone patch of green in a blackened landscape. Beneath it, the city of San Bernardino splays out across the flats; above it, the walls of the canyon rise 1,000 to 2,000 feet.

Still visible Friday were about eight cabins along the creek, a tennis court and a swimming pool, all relatively unscathed. Other buildings that were more directly in the path of the slide had been swept away.

Many of those visiting Monzon were members of his church, Iglesia de Dios de la Profecia in San Bernardino. Nearly all the missing children were members of the church’s Sunday school.

Perry Skaggs of St. Sophia Cathedral said the playground where the children were playing sits across an S-shaped creek from Monzon’s motel-style home, where the adults were congregated. The location of the playground equipment, close to the creek, could explain why the majority of those declared missing were children, he said.

Skaggs said church officials had been aware of the danger posed by mudslides after the fires. “We had done some sandbagging, and we were prepared for what we could prepare for,” he said. “But when something like this happens, there’s nothing you can do. It was an act of God.”

About 50 relatives and friends of those missing gathered at the San Bernardino church Friday afternoon for a prayer service. Breaking into clusters of twos and threes, they locked arms, formed small circles and prayed. Some sobbed; others cried, “Please, God” in Spanish.

In Devore, at least 30 trailer homes were swept up in the mudslide, along with vehicles and other debris, some of which nearly reached Interstate 215, about a mile south of the KOA campground Two creeks flow through the facility. Mud and rocks swept into some single-family homes, blowing out the back walls.

In some areas, gnarled, uprooted trees lay in piles like beaver dams. A dead bear could be seen on the side of the road against some small trees and wood pilings.

The bodies of Nuss and Bradley were found Friday morning, less than a mile from the campground, according to San Bernardino County Fire Chief Sid Hultquist.

“It took out about half of the campground,” Hultquist said. “We’re searching trailer by trailer, room by room, for victims.” By Friday evening, no other bodies had been found, and there were no people reported missing there.

Bradley had been with her boyfriend, Doug Pooch, on the porch of her home at the campground when they were swept away by the onslaught of mud, rocks and water, according to her daughter, Tonya Best, 38, of Corona. Pooch was carried almost to the 215, but managed to make his way to a call box and summon help, according to Best. Bradley’s body was found about 25 yards away, according to her son, Tim Barnes, 40.

“Doug said he was trapped under mud and water and rolling,” Best said. “At the hospital he was asking, ‘Did we find her? Did we find her?’ ”

Best said her mother, brother and Pooch had all been supposed to be at Best’s home for Christmas dinner, but had called to say the weather was too bad for them to travel. “Tanya,” Best recalled her mother as saying, “this is worse than the fires.”

She said her mother had told her that she was trying to find the highest ground, and thought the porch might be it.

“They were just sitting ducks waiting,” the daughter said.

Many of Bradley’s animals, including horses, mules and a pair of bulls, were swept up in the mud. Barnes spent some of Friday morning walking through the debris field, calling his mother’s name.

They found her new cellphone, on which they had tried repeatedly Thursday night to reach her. The phone was dead.

Describing her mother, Best said: “She was the most caring. She would give the shirt off her back to any person. Her home was always open for whoever needed a place to stay.”

Bradley had managed the campground about a dozen years. She enjoyed making quilts and other crafts and frequently volunteered to feed the homeless.

“She was a very dedicated woman,” said Chehab Elawar, 49, who met Bradley at a Rotary breakfast club. “She made sure everyone was evacuated when the wildfires happened. She evacuated everyone and left last. She’s a great person. I don’t wish her to go out like this.”

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Times staff writers Claire Luna, Lance Pugmire, Louis Sahagun, Larry B. Stammer and Julie Tamaki contributed to this report.

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Contributors to mudslide coverage

Contributing to the coverage of the mudslides were Times staff writers Hector Becerra in Devore; Daren Briscoe, Steve Hymon, Claire Luna, Lance Pugmire and Louis Sahagun in Waterman Canyon; Jia-Rui Chong in Loma Linda; and Miguel Bustillo, Robin Fields, Mitchell Landsberg, Larry B. Stammer and Julie Tamaki in Los Angeles.


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