LA CONCHITA, Calif. – First came the sickening crack of splitting earth, then a sudden roar as dirt and vegetation swallowed home after home. Alerted to the landslide by screams and honking horns, some in this sliver of a town found themselves literally racing the fast-moving flow downhill as it tore through cars and telephone poles.
"It was like the hillside turned to liquid. It all came down," Ventura County Fire Department spokesman Joe Luna said.
At least three people were killed, nine injured and up to 21 were missing after Monday's slide, triggered by the latest in a wave of powerful storms that have saturated Southern California terrain.
Such a disaster had long ago been predicted for the community tucked between Highway 101 (search) and a towering coastal bluff, its ocean view accompanied by lurking danger. The cliff was determined years ago to be creeping toward the Pacific Ocean, and dozens moved out when a 1995 slide destroyed nine homes and real estate values plunged.
For some, the latest collapse took with it any remaining allure of their bit of doomed California paradise.
Kathleen Wood, who watched the slide churn through houses, said her 17-year-old son was in shock after hearing bodies slammed between two cars and feeling a hand with no pulse that was sticking out from the mud.
"He's pretty devastated," she told The Associated Press. "I mean we've lived here for 18 years and he says 'Mom, I want to move.'"
Huge floodlights lit up the mounds of debris overnight as crews in bright yellow and orange uniforms monitored cameras and listening devices they had dropped into the soil. Rescuers detected movements and heard sounds from beneath the mud and debris early Tuesday but had not yet reached any new survivors.
Fire officials, having received information about a mother and three children who had not contacted relatives, advised them to "look for small hands and small fingers," Luna said.
A man who told authorities his wife and three children were missing joined in the search, aided by several friends who shoveled dirt and crawled under roofs that, propped at an angle on trapped cars, left clearings under the debris pile. "Like us, they haven't given up hope that people are still alive," Luna said.
On Monday, stunned survivors huddled together or cried as they talked on cell phones. Some made their way from the slide area clutching pets, luggage or clothing.
Milli Alvis said her son had fled the slide with another youngster. "The boy that was running in front of him said that he got out but Tony didn't make it. We haven't seen him," she told KABC-TV, sobbing.
Able-bodied survivors went to work alongside rescue crews until late Monday, digging with sticks and whatever tools they could locate. Nearly all residents left town overnight.
"I helped pull a friend out of there this morning. ... He was gone," Chris Riley told KCAL-TV. A camera crew out reporting on roadway closures captured the disaster on tape as it happened.
The hillside cascaded down like a brown river as authorities were evacuating about 200 residents from near the unstable area. Trees and vegetation were carried away, leaving huge gashes of raw earth on the bluff. Fifteen homes were destroyed in a four-block area.
Laid out on a sloping, rectangular grid 10 streets wide and two streets deep, portions of the community looked like a trash heap on Tuesday. Toilet seats, planks and doors were strewn among the piles of dirt next to a whole wooden patio deck on its side.
The landslide came in the same area where in March 1995 some 600,000 tons of earth fell onto the town during a powerful storm. Angry homeowners sued a blufftop ranch owner they blamed for weakening the bluff by overwatering avocado groves. La Conchita Ranch Co. (search) settled the suit two years later for an undisclosed amount.
Others were mad at the county, which eventually put up a $400,000 retaining wall. The wall collapsed immediately under Monday's slide, but officials said it had only been intended to stop debris, not another mudslide.
"I don't think the county is any more responsible than it was for the last slide," county public works director Ron Coons said. Residents had signed waivers after the last slide releasing Ventura County (search) from liability in future slides.