MONTECITO, CALIFORNIA – 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.