Home / World News / Rescue efforts continue in Montecito as community reels from deadly mudslide

Rescue efforts continue in Montecito as community reels from deadly mudslide

Rescue crews continued to search for survivors amid the mud and wreckage of Montecito’s massive debris field on Thursday, but acknowledged that the window to save lives is rapidly closing.

At least eight people remain unaccounted for following Tuesday’s massive mud flow, which killed at least 17 people and obliterated scores of homes. On Thursday afternoon, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office released the names of the dead, who were all Montecito residents.

They were identified as Jonathan Benitez,10; Kailly Benitez, 3; Martin Cabrera-Munoz, 48; David Cantin, 49; Sawyer Corey, 12; Peter Fleurat, 73; Josephine Gower, 69; John McManigal, 61; Alice Mitchell, 78; James Mitchell, 89; Mark Montgomery, 54; Caroline Montgomery, 22; Marilyn Ramos, 27; Rebecca Riskin, 61; Roy Rohter, 84; Peerawat Sutthithepn, 6; and Richard Taylor, 67.

The county coroner has listed the cause of death for each of the victims as “multiple traumatic injuries due to flash flood with mudslides due to recent wildfire.”

First responders have searched approximately 75% of the debris field left by a torrent of boulders, detritus and muck, according to Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown.

“It is a massive operation that we have underway, still in the search and rescue mode, as mentioned, but as we transition and will transition to a recovery mode, we realize that this is going to be a long and difficult journey for all of us and for our community,” he said.

Emergency crews successfully rescued three people Wednesday, using helicopters to reach residents trapped in canyon areas that were rendered inaccessible by mud, downed power lines and fallen trees.

“We continue to work down a list of missing people and their addresses and do a much more focused search of that area,” Montecito Fire District Deputy Chief Kevin Taylor said during a news briefing Wednesday.

Much of the focus of Thursday’s search will be on areas where rescue crews had yet to reach, said Amber Anderson, a public information officer for the multiagency response team handling the disaster. Secondary searches also will be conducted in areas that emergency crews were able to access earlier in the week.

Hundreds of people who were trapped but not injured in the slides, such as those stranded in Romero Canyon, were taken to safety on Wednesday, she said.

Anderson could not say Thursday morning whether the eight people still missing were believed to be in areas that rescue crews had yet to reach.

After two days of trying to enter neighborhoods buried beneath mud and blocked by wreckage, urban search and rescue teams finally got to some of those areas. Ventura County Fire Capt. Bob Schuett was staring at a map of Montecito as his partner drove along a ravaged roadway Thursday.

The duo lead a crew of 43 assigned to find stranded residents in northeastern Montecito on Park Lane, Romero Canyon Road, Bella Vista Drive and Valley Road. Some of those reported missing live in the area, according to Schuett, who said his team had rescued at least six people already this week.

But even when debris fields are mostly cleared, the mud can prove treacherous for rescue crews. What appears to be a simple patch of muck might hide something much more dangerous, said Ventura County Fire Capt. Mark Seastrom.

“Manhole covers are blown off and filled with mud. Some pools are completely covered in mud,” he said. “It’s essentially quicksand. If there’s a hole, we’ll fall and keep going until hitting the bottom.”

Off of East Valley Road, a five-member search-and-rescue team out of San Diego gathered at the entrance of a destroyed property.

They ran through the potential dangers — gas leaks, moving water, swimming pools, electrical wires and deep mud. There was duct tape around their black pants and boots, intended to keep the suction of the mud from pulling off their boots.

As they swept the area in search of survivors, the smell of gas filled the air.

“This is probably a lot more dangerous environment than we’re used to,” said Scott Fuller, a logistics team manager with Cal Task Force 8. “Typically we train for more earthquake, hurricane kind of stuff. A mudslide is not common …. there’s astronomical safety hazards going on here.”

None of the dead has been formally identified, but the names of some of those killed and missing in the mudslides have begun to trickle out.

In some cases, the deluge seemed to split families as well as homes.

Fabiola Benitez, 28, was swept away along with her husband and two children when her house was leveled during Tuesday’s deluge, according to Lori Lieberman, a family friend. Benitez’s husband and older son were rescued and hospitalized in stable condition, according to Lieberman, who said Benitez and her 9-year-old son remain missing and are feared dead.

Roy Rohter, the founder of St. Augustine Academy in Ventura, was swept from his home alongside his wife on Tuesday morning, school officials said. Rohter did not survive, but his wife was rescued and said to be in stable condition, the college said in a statement earlier this week.

Rebecca Riskin, a Montecito real estate agent, also was identified as one of those killed, according to a statement issued by her firm. She is survived by her husband and two children, the statement said.

The surge destroyed or damaged hundreds of buildings in Montecito and washed out a 30-mile stretch of the 101 Freeway. The roadway will remain closed until at least Monday from Highway 150 to Milpas Street in Santa Barbara as crews work around the clock to clear the area of mud, cars and other debris. On the stretch of the freeway by the Montecito Inn, several feet of mud and rubble collected in the road.

“It looks like a swamp — there’s so much stuff down there,” said Jose Gonzalez, a road crew worker stationed by a bridge over the 101. “Some of the locals think there’s probably bodies in there. I hope not.”

Nearly 60 single-family residences were destroyed in Montecito, and 446 others sustained damage, according to an update published Wednesday night by the multi-agency team responding to the devastation. An additional 1,500 homes remain threatened.

The debris field also cut off gas, electricity and water to much of the area. A boil water notice remains in effect for the Montecito Water District, officials said, and rescue personnel are concerned that those who survived the slide but remain trapped soon could run dangerously low on supplies.

“A majority of Montecito and that whole area is in the Stone Age right now,” Mike Eliason, public information officer with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, said Wednesday. “We’re actively pursuing trying to get in there as quick as we can to get those people to safety.”

From above, the debris flow appears as a near-endless swath of brown, interrupted occasionally by the roof tiles of inundated homes and clouds of smoke from smoldering structures. In a rescue helicopter that was surveying the damage on Wednesday, National Guard Chief Warrant Officer Sean Quillin said the shock and speed of the mudslide had left nearly every survivor shaken.

“I picked up 39 people from the Birnam Wood Golf Club,” he said. “It was pretty nasty. Kids and grownups were crying and animals were scared.”

As the pilots began to head back to Santa Barbara Municipal Airport, the helicopter flew above the 101 Freeway, revealing the enormous amount of work that remains to be done in order to clear the coastal roadway. Near the Olive Mill Road overpass, the highway was submerged in water.

The aerial view helped city officials better understand just how violent the massive mudslide had been, but also how things could have turned out worse.

“This was an extremely violent downward movement of mud. If it weren’t for the debris basin near Santa Monica Creek, we would have seen what happened in Montecito happen in Carpinteria,” Santa Barbara County Public Works Water Resources Deputy Director Tom Fayram said. “We have a lot of work ahead of us.”

Times staff writers James Queally and Alene Tchekmedyian in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

brittny.mejia@latimes.com

Matt.hamilton@latimes.com

melissa.etehad@latimes.com

Follow @brittny_mejia @MattHjourno & @melissaetehad for updates on the mudslides in Montecito.


UPDATES:

2:25 p.m.: This article has been updated with the names of the dead.

1:10 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details about the hazards faced by rescue teams.

11:40 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details about rescue teams reaching previously inaccessible areas and descriptions of damage as seen from the air.

This article was originally published at 8:25 a.m.

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