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Mudslide survivor: 'Just rubble and remains'


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Unrelenting rains cause a mudslide in La Conchita.

California mudslide prompts frantic rescue efforts.

A nail-biting rescue from a flooded California viaduct.
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Mudslide

LA CONCHITA, California (CNN) -- As deadly mudslides plagued La Conchita, California, resident Bill Harbison unexpectedly found himself rescuing a woman and a teen-age girl trapped in the wreckage of a destroyed home.

CNN's Soledad O'Brien spoke with Harbison on Tuesday and asked him to describe his harrowing experience.

HARBISON: I was just about to take a tour of the neighborhood, riding my bicycle around to look at the small, little mudslides that had happened overnight. And I just stepped outside my door and I heard this noise -- almost like a pop. And I looked up and I saw an entire mountainside just come down and just race through part of our little town here.

O'BRIEN: How many houses were in the path of that slide?

HARBISON: Probably about 15 or so. It was about two blocks wide and about half a block deep. What did you do?

HARBISON: I immediately raced my bike around the corner, I just jumped on in -- started calling out for people climbing through the wreckage -- climbing through the mud and all the rubble -- calling out for people until I found a little area that had two women trapped deep within what I guess used to be their homes, and I started calling out for more help.

O'BRIEN: What did you know about the two women who were trapped?

HARBISON: I hadn't actually met them before. I think they were neighbors. I don't believe that they were family. And they were maybe 25 feet apart from each other. But they were close enough that I could kind of talk to both of them at the same time -- while I was working on one -- trying to get one free.

O'BRIEN: Could you see them?

HARBISON: No, I could just hear where they were. They were completely buried underneath an unbelievable amount of wreckage -- broken glass, live power lines...

O'BRIEN: So what did you do?

HARBISON: I started digging. I called for help and some other gentleman came and helped me -- one of my neighbors here in La Conchita -- and we just started bit by bit tearing boards out of the way -- throwing pieces of broken glass -- basically digging through people's -- what were their prized possessions -- just to get to them.

O'BRIEN: How long did it take you to get to them?

HARBISON: I really don't know. It seemed like an eternity to me.

O'BRIEN: What had happened by the time rescue workers showed up?

HARBISON: The first one, the young girl, we were able to pull her out -- she was fabulous. She was able to help out quite a bit in getting herself out, once we were able to move quite a bit of the wreckage. So I put her on my back and carried her out piggy back and handed her off to someone else and then jumped back in looking for another woman. And this time a couple of law enforcement officers were with me to help me and we were just digging and digging and I finally found the second woman -- got down to her -- was actually able to look her in the eye -- make eye contact and hold her hand and say, "I'm here, we're not going to leave you. We're going to get you out."

And right around that time, the professionals -- the rescue team -- had come -- the fire department with all their tools and all their training and good equipment. I wasn't exactly dressed for the occasion.

O'BRIEN: What kind of shape were the woman and the girl in?

HARBISON: The young girl was pinned in -- she was very contorted in the position that she was in -- the young girl. The other woman she was laying flat on her back and her only complaint at the time was leg pain -- no difficulty breathing or anything. She was having a lot of leg pain and some numbness in one of her legs.

O'BRIEN: Did you have any warning?

HARBISON: No. This came without warning. Obviously there was a mudslide 10 years ago and -- that one -- they did have warning for. They kind of knew that that one was going to happen. And it happened a lot slower. That slide, I'm told, people could outrun as it was coming down. The one yesterday just happened so quickly -- it was over in about 15 seconds.

O'BRIEN: Give us a sense of what the neighborhood looks like now.

HARBISON: It used to be a cute, little seaside community here. And it just has a giant tear right down the middle of it with probably 15 feet deep with dirt in the back spreading halfway through the town, basically. Just rubble and the remains of what used to be people's homes.

O'BRIEN: How were you evacuated from La Conchita?

HARBISON: I was just told, that everybody needs to evacuate and I was quite a bit shaken by that point. I think I just kind of wandered around my house in the dark for a little while thinking, What does one take? I actually just moved to La Conchita about a month ago. I just purchased my first home and so a lot of my stuff is still packed. So I wasn't quite sure what to grab, wasn't quite sure what was in the box anymore. So I just kind of grabbed some clothes and went.


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