LA CONCHITA, Calif. – Jimmie Wallet (search) 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.
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, apparently sitting on a couch when the slide broke apart their house, pushing it for about 100 yards and covering it in muck.
"They never had a chance to get out," said Scott Hall, a battalion chief with Ventura County Fire Department.
His fourth daughter, a 16-year-old, had been in nearby Ventura when the slide happened.
Late Wednesday, authorities said everyone reported missing in the mudslide had been accounted for. Still, Capt. Harold Humphries of the Ventura County (search) Sheriff's Department said rescue operations would continue into Thursday to make sure no victims had gone overlooked.
The number of missing slowly dropped Wednesday as more bodies were found and residents on the missing list either showed up at a town meeting or got in touch with authorities.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (search) viewed the damage by helicopter Wednesday, and declared a state of emergency in the county. "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 in Utah, washed out roads and forcing dozens of people from their homes. No serious injuries were reported, but one man was missing in Utah.
Crews using dogs, cameras and microphones intended to keep searching for survivors in La Conchita and then reassess the rescue operation on Thursday night.
The massive mound of mud covered several blocks and stood 30 feet high in some spots. Scattered in the mud were a variety of household items, including surfboards, dish towels, golf clubs and canceled checks. A pickup truck looked like it had been in an explosion. Other cars and mobile homes were crushed.
"It tears these cars up like they're toys." Los Angeles County fire Capt. Greg Cleveland said.
As workers searched for the missing in La Conchita, Wallet said in interviews with The Associated Press that he moved to this oceanside town 70 miles northwest of Los Angeles from Ventura in search of an easier life.
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 carpenter who has thick dreadlocks and is nicknamed "Gator," worked construction jobs with Womack and was staying with him to help save money, said Larry Gallardo, another friend.
Wallet said they played music and hung out on an old bus with a rooftop patio. Engraved over the 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."
Raven and Hannah shared Wallet's affinity for the arts — they took dance lessons and played piano.
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.