Rescuers 'searching for a miracle' in California mudslidesJanuary 12, 2018 4:44am

MONTECITO, Calif. (AP) — More than two full days after mudslides ravaged the coastal town of Montecito, the search for the missing became an increasingly desperate exercise Thursday, with growing doubts about whether anyone would be found alive. Seventeen people from ages 3 to 89 were confirmed dead, and more than 40 others were unaccounted for.

"In disaster circumstances there have been many miraculous stories lasting many days and we certainly are searching for a miracle right now," Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said. He noted that some people had been rescued Thursday.

Santa Barbara fire Capt. Gary Pitney said most if not all rescues conducted Wednesday and Thursday were of people who were safe but just wanted to get out of the area.

"These were people that were sheltered in place that had needs that just took a while to get to some of them," Pitney said. "They were OK but they wanted to get out."

The air smelled of sewage and ash as more than a dozen firefighters climbed through rubble in the backyard of a mansion that had been torn apart. Some rescuers used poles to probe the muck for bodies, while others waded chest-deep in the mire. Two black Labrador retrievers swam around a debris-filled swimming pool, trying to pick up any scent.

"At this moment, we are still looking for live victims," Pitney said. But he confessed: "The likelihood is increasing that we'll be finding bodies, not survivors. You have to start accepting the reality of that."

He noted that one survivor pulled from the muck earlier in the week was suffering from hypothermia after just an hour.

Crews marked places where bodies were found, often far away from a home, and used that information to guess where other victims might have ended up as the surging mud carried or buried them.

The mudslide, touched off by heavy rain, took many homeowners by surprise early Tuesday, despite warnings issued days in advance that mudslides were possible because recent wildfires had stripped hillsides of vegetation that normally holds soil in place.

The disaster was already unfolding when Santa Barbara County officials sent out their first cellphone alert at 3:50 a.m. County emergency manager Jeff Gater said officials decided not to send one sooner out of concern it might not be taken seriously.

As the rainwater made its way downhill with gathering force, it pried boulders from the ground and picked up trees and other debris that flattened homes, cars and carried at least one body a mile away.

From an aerial view, the community that is home for celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Jeff Bridges, looked like two vastly different places.

Trashed areas were awash in a sea of mud, with only the tallest trees standing and some homes buried up to their roofs. Next to some of the devastated areas sat large estates untouched by the torrent, their lawns still green and the landscaping lush.

Santa Barbara County authorities offered wildly fluctuating numbers of the missing throughout the day. A spokeswoman early in the day sent a shudder through the community when she said the number of people unaccounted for had surged from 16 to 48. Within an hour, they said they had made a clerical error and the actual number of missing was eight.

"How does that happen?" resident David Weinert asked. "That's a crazy mistake to make."

Later in the day, however, the sheriff said the number was at 43, combining missing persons reports filed with law enforcement and also inquiries by people who hadn't been able to contact family members or friends.

Brown said some of those people could have left the area before or after the mudslides or may simply be out of touch with people concerned about them.

After a better look at the damage, officials lowered the number of destroyed homes from 100 to 64 and raised the number of damaged ones from 300 to 446.

Overall, 28 people were injured. Twelve remained hospitalized, four in critical condition.

All of the dead were from Montecito, Brown said. The cause of each death was listed as "multiple traumatic injuries due to flash flood with mudslides," which was due the recent wildfire

One of the victims was David Cantin, the father of a 14-year-old girl who was heavily caked in mud when she was pulled from the ruins of her home after a dramatic six-hour rescue.

Another was James Mitchell, who had celebrated his 89th birthday the day before with his wife, Alice, of more than 50 years. She also died.

Searchers had checked most of the debris zone for victims and some were doubling back to leave no stone unturned Thursday when a crew ended up in the backyard of Bill Asher, who lost his palatial home and a similar one he was restoring next door.

Asher returned with a pickax and five friends and trudged through the debris to salvage any possession he could find.

He was still shaken by his harrowing experience Tuesday with his pregnant wife and two young children as the violent gusher arrived with a deafening rumble.

"I looked out my front window and saw my car fly by," he said. "I screamed at my family and water started coming into the house. Windows went flying, doors went flying."

The family rode out the storm unharmed on kitchen counters as the debris smashed through the walls and water swirled around them.

Asher's return to the scene, where murky water was knee-deep, turned up at least one gem: his wife's engagement ring, the only keepsake she wanted him to find.

___

Melley contributed from Los Angeles. Associated Press writers Amanda Lee Myers, John Antczak, Michael Balsamo and Andrew Dalton in Los Angeles and Aron Ranen in Montecito contributed to this report.

___

Follow Weber at https://twitter.com/WeberCM .

Page 1 of 1

More Stories Like This

The Latest: US 101 near reopening after California mudslideAuthorities say the key highway along the California coast has been cleared of debris and is a few days from reopening after a massive mudslide
In this Monday, Jan. 15, 2018 image from video provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, the U.S. 101 freeway remains underwater as clean-up crews work to clear the roads throughout Montecito, Calif., following the deadly mudflow and flooding Jan. 9. Crews working around the clock cleared boulders, trees and crushed cars from all lanes of U.S. 101, but California officials still weren't sure Monday when the key coastal highway might reopen after being inundated during mudslides that killed 20 people. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP)
California community makes recovery strides after mudslide
This 2010 photo provided by Alex Ocampo shows Fabiola Benitez, who as of Jan. 18, 2018 is still missing since mudslides hit the home she and her husband rented with his brother's family in Montecito, Calif., where they cared for million-dollar homes as gardeners and a housekeeper. Her 10-year-old son Jonathan was killed, her husband Victor Benitez and their 2-year-old son were injured and remain in the hospital. The Benitez family are part of Montecito's immigrant work force which suffered outsize losses in the Jan. 9 mudslides that killed 20 people, injured dozens and destroyed hundreds of homes in the star-studded community. Victor's brother, Antonio Benitez, also was injured and his wife and daughter were killed. (Alex Ocampo via AP)
The Latest: Authorities find body of missing mudslide victim
FILE - This file photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018 shows Faviola Benitez Calderon. The Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office has located her body as she was missing since mudslides on Jan. 9 struck Montecito, Calif. The working-class immigrant population in Montecito suffered outsized losses from the recent mudslides that killed at least 21, injured dozens and damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes. (Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office via AP, File)
Mudslides take heavy toll on immigrants serving posh town
In this Friday, Jan. 19, 2018 photo Caltrans and other workers continue their around-the-clock efforts to clean-up and repair the damaged section of US 101 in Montecito, Calif., that was closed following flooding on Jan. 9. California officials say key coastal highway swamped by deadly mudslides has reopened Sunday, Jan 21, 2018, after nearly 2-week closure. (Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP, File)
California highway swamped by deadly mudslides reopens
Dozens of flights canceled at Denver airport due to stormOfficials say about 190 flights have been canceled at Denver International Airport as a winter storm moves through Colorado
This component is currently unavailable.
AdChoices

Related Searches

Related Searches

AdChoices