MONTECITO, Calif. — 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 eight others were unaccounted for.
“They’re not going to find survivors anymore. They’re going to find bodies in the mud,” said David Weinert, who feared two of his neighbours were among the dead and turned out to be right in at least one case. “It’s emotional for me to say this, but I think they’re gone.”
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 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,” Santa Barbara fire Capt. Gary 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 disaster, touched off by heavy rain, took many homeowners by surprise early Tuesday, despite evacuation orders and warnings issued days in advance that mudslides were possible because recent wildfires in the hills had stripped away vegetation that normally holds soil in place.
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.
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.
From above, thrashed areas of town appeared 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.
County authorities sent a shudder through the community early Thursday when they reported that the number of people unaccounted for had surged from 16 to 48. But within an hour, they said they had made a clerical error and the actual number of missing was eight.
“How does that happen?” Weinert asked. “That’s a crazy mistake to make.”
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.
The Santa Barbara sheriff released the names of the dead, which included 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.
It also included 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 building 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 on kitchen counters as the debris smashed through the walls and exposed the lower level of the two-story house and one of the upstairs bedrooms.
When it was over, he was able to hike to a nearby road and flag down firefighters who helped his family get out.
A stranger loaded the family in his truck and drove them to a hotel. Because Asher didn’t have a wallet, the man paid.
“He threw down his credit card, took care of everything,” Asher said, amazed at the act of kindness.