Ventura County

Rescue Crews Save Lives in Time of Tragedy After Montecito Mudslides

"We couldn’t make out what we were looking at because everything was a sheet of mud," sheriff's deputy Darin Rich said.

After a sea of mud devastated the Montecito area and killed 20 people following the first significant storm of the season, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department Aviation stepped in for assistance.

"We got the first call at about 5:30 a.m.," said firefighter and paramedic Randy Gilbert.

In just a small amount of time, the brave relief crews gathered their things and headed straight to the Santa Barbara County town.

"Houses that we were using as landmarks – they were no longer there," sheriff's deputy Darin Rich said.

The thick mud posed a serious challenge to rescue and recovery crews as they searched for survivors. Even from the air, the mudslides created a difficult search.

"We couldn’t make out what we were looking at because everything was a sheet of mud," Rich said.

The laidback and lucrative town of Montecito was left in a mess of debris as residents evacuated the area due to the tragic aftermath.

"There were huge rocks, cars, houses, and pieces of house all over the place," Gilbert said.

Rescue crews got word of a trapped driver on the 101 Freeway and quickly moved to the scene. The driver was surrounded by four to six feet of muddy water and was unable to escape. Recovery crews have been working for over a week to clear the roads since.

"He was stuck because the water had gotten into the vehicle and all electronics had gone out," sheriff's deputy Lee Chapman said. "He couldn’t open the doors because the mud was just too heavy and dense."

Chapman gathered his courage as he strapped himself to a harness and lowered himself from a helicopter to save the trapped driver.

"I had to break out the window with the window punch to find out there was somebody in there," he said.

After being trapped for eight hours, the man, who was tired but not injured, was finally free.

Chapman's heroic rescue was one of 15 hoists and eight missions by the crew that flew all day. They only landed to transfer patients on what looked like a safe area to do so. They then realized that the large, grassy field was anything but just.

"As we completed a hoist operation and moved over to this grassy field and started to land, my pilot recognized it as Oprah Winfrey’s house," Rich said. "We were landing on Oprah’s lawn!"

The team rescued for people that day and spent hours in the mud as they searched for more survivors. The endeavor was not only physically exhausting, but also a mental challenge.

"The mental toll is just not knowing how many other people are out there needing assistance – people we may or may not have gotten to," Chapman said.

Despite all the work rescue crews have done to assist the town, they remain humble and credit the people of Montecito for helping each other.

"It's the people on the ground," Chapman said. "The people who lost everything that are the true victims are the true heroes of what happened in Montecito."

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