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Searchers Face Sea of Mud, Wreckage Piles in Hunt for Southern California Mudslide Survivors

The death toll from Tuesday's pre-dawn flash flood rose to 17 on Wednesday as more bodies were found

What to Know

  • At least 17 people have died since Wednesday and eight were reported missing
  • The 101 Freeway has been closed from both sides while crews work to remove mud and debris.
  • Only an estimated 10 to 15 percent of residents fled when ordered and much of the damage occurred where evacuations were voluntary.

Hundreds of searchers continued the grueling work Thursday of hunting for survivors and digging up bodies in the sea of mud and wreckage left by flash flooding in the wealthy coastal enclave of Montecito.

Muck-spattered searchers from around the state slogged through knee-deep ooze, poking long poles into the mud to probe for victims. Search dogs clambered on shattered heaps of wood that used to be homes.

The death toll from Tuesday's pre-dawn flash flood rose to 17 on Wednesday as more bodies were found. Eight people were still reported missing, down from 17 a day earlier. Authorities said earlier Thursday that 48 people were missing, but the Santa Barbara County Fire Department later corrected that number, confirming that eight people are missing.

That number could increase in the coming days.

Jim and Alice Mitchell, of Montecito, didn't heed a voluntary evacuation warning and stayed home Monday to celebrate Jim Mitchell's 89th birthday, their daughter Kelly Weimer said. Their bodies were found early Tuesday on Olive Mill Road, just down the street from their Hot Springs Road home, family members confirmed to NBC.  

The Montecito-based real estate firm Riskin Partners announced Wednesday that partner Rebecca Riskin, who had been reported missing, was also killed by the deluge.

"The confirmation of her loss is incredibly devastating to her friends, family, and our community," the company said in a statement. "Per her wishes, we intend to carry out her life's work with the same strength' grace and elegance that wholly defined Rebecca. Rebecca was an exceptional woman, and her legacy will continue to live on and thrive through her children, Robert and Julia, her husband Ken Grand, and her namesake firm, Riskin Partners."

Search-and-rescue teams from all over California were working their way through the muck and wreckage of Montecito, a wealthy enclave of 9,000 people northwest of Los Angeles that is home to celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey. However, the flood left it strewn with mud, boulders, wrecked cars, trashed buildings and tree limbs in a scene that Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown has compared to a World War I battlefield.

Other people were rescued after being trapped for more than a day in their homes.

Devon Crail, 39, of Santa Barbara came back to his parents' home Wednesday to gather belongings and medication they weren't able to take with them when they managed to leave that morning.

"I talked to them at about four in the morning," he said. "They had tried to open the front door to leave and the mud started pouring in. They were able to force the door closed and stuck it out until sunrise when they got out."

By Wednesday, some 500 searchers had covered about 75 percent of the inundated area, authorities said.

However, they had a long and arduous slog ahead — literally.

"A lot of the street signs are gone, the roads are impassable. It all has to be done on foot," said Deputy Dan Page, chief of the Altadena Mountain Rescue Team of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which sent help to the scene.

"We've gotten multiple reports of rescuers falling through manholes that were covered with mud, swimming pools that were covered up with mud," said Anthony Buzzerio, a Los Angeles County fire battalion chief. "The mud is acting like a candy shell on ice cream. It's crusty on top but soft underneath, so we're having to be very careful."

A dozen people were hospitalized at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital and four were in critical condition, Dr. Brett Wilson said.

People in Montecito had counted themselves lucky last month after the biggest wildfire in California history spared the town. But it was the fire that led to the mudslide, by burning away vegetation.

"We totally thought we were out of the woods," said Jennifer Markham, whose home escaped damage in both disasters. "I was frozen yesterday morning thinking, 'This is a million times worse than that fire ever was.'"

Only an estimated 10 to 15 percent of residents fled when ordered and much of the damage occurred where evacuations were voluntary.

Rescue crews worked up to 12 hours a day and risked stepping on nails or shattered glass, or being exposed to raw sewage, or dealing with leaking gas, Page said.

It could take days or even longer before the work is finished. But rescuers never really abandon the idea that there might still be people out there, Page said.

"That's always our mentality: 'Hey, we're going to find someone alive,'" he said. "You never really know. You never know exactly what the human body is capable of."

In 2014, a mudslide in rural Oso in Washington state killed 43 people. The last body was found after four months.

Travis Hots, fire chief of Snohomish County Fire District 22, was on the scene in the first hour after that catastrophe.

He recalled a sea of mud so thick that crews had trouble slogging through it or so watery it was like quicksand. Helicopters were brought in to pluck up survivors while crews waded in to drag or carry out others even though they weren't sure whether they would be hit with another slide.

Some waved for help, some were trapped in semi-submerged homes and rescuers had to cut through a roof to rescue one man.

"Crews that arrived at the end of the road where the mud started could hear screaming," he said.

In Montecito, more than 50 people were airlifted to safety on the day of the slide.

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

But even people buried only a few inches under the ground might initially be missed.

"You could literally walk right past somebody because everything was gray" with mud, Hots said.

"These are generally long-term incidents. It's a slow, tedious process and it's going to take a long time to recover from," Hots said. "They're going to do the best they can for the families. Most of the emergency professionals I know work themselves to death trying to find people."

Both he and Page said even finding the dead is gratifying because it offers a sense of closure to grieving relatives.

"No mother or father, husband or wife has to drive by there and wonder, 'When is my loved one going to be found out there?'" Hots said. "Everyone was found."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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