Survivors recall deadly Christmas ’03 mudslides
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. – Steve Phillips had expected mild Southern California winter weather as his family camped in the mountains near San Bernardino while visiting his grandmother last year over the holidays.
But Christmas 2003 turned into a nightmare as steady rain led to flash floods and mudslides in mountains scarred by devastating wildfires. The torrents of water sent trees, boulders and other debris rocketing down hillsides, killing 16 people at two campgrounds.
A year later, Phillips, 44, recalled the “wall of water” that swept him from the campground.
“I found myself rocketing, caroming off of everything, feet first,” he told the Riverside Press-Enterprise in Saturday’s edition. “Then it changed again, and it was like being on a roller coaster, with my head out of the water. I was flying across the desert with the silhouettes of cactuses and bushes flying past.”
Phillips, a medical devices engineer from the Seattle area, struggled out of the torrent more than a mile from the KOA Kampground near Devore. He climbed a fence and was picked up by a motorist on a nearby freeway. He had a broken arm, his throat and ears were packed with mud and his eyes were so scratched that he could barely see.
He was relieved to learn later that his wife, their three young children and a 16-year-old niece were fine back at the camp.
But others weren’t so fortunate. The mudslides killed five adults and nine children a few miles away at St. Sophia Camp north of San Bernardino. The body of one child, who was found four months after the storm, had been carried 15 miles by the flood.
At the KOA Kampground in Devore, where Phillips was staying, two people were killed, including the campground manager and a claims adjuster from Wellington, Kan. The adjuster was staying there while working to settle claims from the deadly October 2003 wildfires that destroyed vegetation in the region _ leaving it vulnerable to mudslides.
Some survivors remain traumatized, especially children who were among four families who had gathered Christmas Day at St. Sophia Camp. Family members said they planned to attend a service Sunday for flood victims at their church.
“I miss my dad so much,” 9-year-old Jose Meza told the San Bernardino County Sun in Friday’s edition. “He was my hero.”
The Phillips family and the relatives of those killed in the mudslides are among dozens of people suing San Bernardino County, claiming authorities didn’t do enough to warn people of the potential danger.
Local officials have said the floods were unforeseeable natural disasters.