A year ago, debris flows brought ‘unfathomable destruction’ to Montecito

Santa Barbara County responders launched into rescue mode in the early-morning hours of Jan. 9, 2018 after debris flows devastated Montecito.
Santa Barbara County responders launched into rescue mode in the early-morning hours of Jan. 9, 2018 after debris flows devastated Montecito. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

A year ago, 23 people were killed in Montecito when massive debris flows crashed through the community in the dark of night, destroying nearly everything in their paths.

Homes were ripped apart, a massive search-and-rescue effort saved residents from the mud, boulders and debris, and the destruction was so extensive that the bodies of two victims still have not been found.

In the day or so preceding the rainstorm that brought down the mountains, Santa Barbara County declared a local emergency; areas ravaged by December’s Thomas Fire were vulnerable to floods, mudslides and debris flows.

About 7,000 people were under mandatory evacuation orders and another 23,300 people in and around Montecito and Carpinteria were given evacuation warnings.

The National Weather Service had forecast a 100-percent chance of rain overnight. An intense rain burst was expected, as much as 1 inch in an hour, sometime between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Around Montecito, firefighters and rescue teams were stationed strategically in place, ready to respond.

But no one was ready for what was to come.

Several homes were destroyed on Glen Oaks Road in Montecito. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

At about 3:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 9, a reported 0.59 inches of rain fell within 30 minutes, directly onto the Thomas Fire burn area in the steep hills above Montecito.

Rain pounded the burned and naked hillsides. Tons of mud, stripped of anything to hold it in place, roared down creeks and streets and obliterated everything in its path.

One of the first indications of danger many people heard that night was a gas main explosion, caused by the debris flow, that burned several homes and sent an eerie orange glow into the dark sky.

Fierce and relentless, the mud and debris snapped trees in half, and wiped out street signs and utility poles. The mud scooped up boulders larger than pickup trucks and pushed them downstream at high speed.

Kevin Taylor, division chief of operations at the Montecito Fire Protection District, was on duty that morning, stationed at the command post at Earl Warren Showgrounds. He had experienced a debris flow in the past, after the Station Fire in Los Angeles.

Montecito Fire Protection District dispatcher Jennifer Taylor, left, and Communications Coordinator Jackie Jenkins recall answering hundreds of 9-1-1 calls in the first few hours following the Jan. 9 debris flows. (JC Corliss / Noozhawk photo)

“The magnitude of this was substantially greater than what we expected,” Taylor said. “The realization came very quickly. We recognized it as a catastrophic event that not only damaged and destroyed lives, but completely eliminated the infrastructure in its path.”

Within the first 90 minutes of the flows, 200 people called 9-1-1 seeking assistance.

The first call came in around 3:45 a.m. to report a brush fire — the reporting party had seen the gas line explosion in the San Ysidro Ranch/Park Lane area.

“The glow was so intense, it lit up the sky, and nobody could accurately describe it,” said Jackie Jenkins, who was running the Montecito Fire Protection District dispatch center that morning.

“I would call the morning ‘calmed chaos.’ Hundreds of calls came in to our center, ranging from reporting the glow from the gas line explosion, people trapped inside their homes, people calling in trying to find out information on loved ones, and people calling in just inquiring why the power was out, not having any idea a major disaster was occurring.”

The massive waves of mud unleashed havoc on the close-knit community. The force lifted houses off their foundations and flung cars like balls in a pinball machine.

One hundred single-family homes were destroyed and 300 others were damaged in the disaster.

Staged firefighters sprung into action and helped as best they could in an environment where entire homes were destroyed in the blink of an eye. They didn’t know where they were, and whether they were about to step into a swimming pool or other hazard that they didn’t know was there.

“It completely reshaped the terrain,” Taylor said. “All of our topographic maps were no longer accurate because there was essentially no topography.”

Responders rush into rescue mode

“The moment that stood out to me that this could be a bad day is when I saw a full-size refrigerator floating, coming my way,” said Nelson Trichler, a member of Santa Barbara County’s Search and Rescue Team. “I said to myself, that refrigerator had to come from a house.”

Trichler and team members had been helping people with mandatory evacuations on Jan. 8, and then was stationed at QAD in Summerland that night.

Several members of the search and rescue team are certified as water rescue technicians, and “we were anticipating that we would have some swift-water rescues,” Trichler said. “We staged at the QAD facilities. We didn’t know if we were going into Carpinteria or Montecito.”

About 2 a.m., he got a call that there was a car over the side Highway 154, falling about 100 feet. He and his crew dashed to make with a rescue.

By the time they got there, however, the man was able to climb back to the road and was uninjured. The search and rescue team turned their vehicle around and headed back to their post when Trichler said it started running hard, “pretty much sideways.”

Just as they got back to QAD, the gas pipeline exploded.

“We were watching this huge fireball light up the Montecito Valley,” Trichler said.

On the radio, they heard reports of sheriff’s deputies getting stuck in the mud. Fire trucks weren’t able to cross the road because of the debris.

“At that point, it was an exercise in frustration trying to get into the hardest hit areas because of the roads being washed out,” Trichler said.

He drove up Highway 192 at Romero Canyon and saw a half dozen trees, all 2-to-3-feet in diameter, piled on top of the road.

Everywhere they drove, the search and rescue team was stopped in its tracks by debris. Eventually, in their off-road vehicle, Trichler and others got onto flooded Highway 101, heading northbound in the southbound lanes.

Search and Rescue Team member Rick Stein and his search dog, MacGyver, look for survivors after the Montecito debris flows. (Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue Team photo)

“It was basically soup,” Trichler said.

He and his crew were checking cars for anyone who needed rescuing. They encountered a pile of 12 cars on North Jameson Road, washed down from above.

It was about 3:45 a.m., and Trichler and his team were in full rescue mode. They found a family of five stuck in an attic, where they had climbed to escape the mud that invaded their home.

The SAR team used chainsaws to cut through the house and busted through windows. They used rescue rafts to guide the family out of the mud and to safety.

A few minutes later, they rescued an elderly couple, and kept hearing radio reports of people being swept into the street.

“We just started doing rescues one at at time,” Trichler said.

When they were sent to 333 Hot Springs Road, they couldn’t find it.

“The reason we couldn’t find the addresses was because the houses were no longer there,” Trichler said. “They were completely wiped off their foundation.”

Trichler said the SAR team had contact that morning with about three dozen people, including adults, senior citizens and children. He and his team also found several bodies.

Trichler has been rescuing people for 35 years in Santa Barbara County, including water rescues at La Conchita and responding to the fatal Painted Cave Fire. The Montecito response, he said, was the worst he had ever seen up to that point.

“By far this was the largest and most destructive and the greatest loss of life that I had ever experienced and thought I would experience, until I went up to Paradise,” Trichler said.

The search for victims

The debris flows are the deadliest disaster in recent Santa Barbara County history, claiming the lives of 23 residents. Some families lost multiple relatives as their homes were swept away.

The Montecito Creek corridor suffered the largest loss of life, and many victims lived in the Old Spanish Town area and along Hot Springs Road, south of Highway 192/East Valley Road.

The Benitez family, which lived on the 1200 block of East Valley Road, near Sycamore Canyon Road, lost four members of the same extended family.

(Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue Team photo)

Faviola Benitez Calderon, 28, and her 10-year-old son, Jonathan, died in the disaster. Her husband, young son and brother-in-law survived, but her sister-in-law, Marilyn Ramos, 27, and Ramos’ daughter, Kailly Benitez, 3, were also killed.

Their neighbors, the Sutthithepa-Taylor family, lost Pinit “Oom” Sutthithepa, 30; his 6-year-old son, Peerawat, known as “Pasta”; and his father-in-law, Richard Loring Taylor, 79.

Sutthithepa’s wife, Yuphawan (“Aw”), and his mother, Banphoem (“Perm”), were working an overnight shift at Vons and survived the storm. Pinit and Yuphawan’s 2-year-old daughter, Lydia, is still missing.

Neighbor Martin Cabrera Munoz, 48, was also killed.

Morgan Christine Corey, 25, and Sawyer Corey, 12, died in the disaster, while Sawyer’s twin, Summer, and mother, Carie Baker-Corey, were injured but survived.

Hot Springs Road residents who died in the debris flows include John McManigal, 61; Jim Mitchell, 89, and Alice Mitchell, 78; Peter Fleurat, 73; David Cantin, 49, and his 17-year-old son, Jack Cantin, who is still missing.

(Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

In the Randall Road and Glen Oaks Road area, Mark Montgomery, 54, and his daughter, Caroline, 22, were killed, as were Rebecca Riskin, 61, and Josephine Gower, 69.

In northern Montecito, Roy Rohter, 84, and Joseph Bleckel, 87, were killed.

SAR teams and the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade continue to search for Jack Cantin and Lydia Sutthithepa.

Trichler said he was out recently looking in a debris flow area that had not been searched. He has hope, and believes that finding the bodies will bring closure.

“We are still out looking for two people,” Trichler said.

Responders recall rescues and moments of hope, as people were saved that morning, and neighbor helped neighbor.

Cold Spring School kindergarten teacher Lisa Ishikawa reads a tribute to 6-year-old Peerawat “Pasta” Sutthithepa, a student of hers who was one of four family members to perish in the debris flows. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

There was Montecito resident Berkeley “Augie” Johnson, who along with county firefighter Dustin McKibben helped rescue a 2-year-old from the mud.

The Johnson family’s home was destroyed, and after they were rescued, Johnson decided to check on a neighbor’s house. The two men heard a cry from the mud, and found the toddler, Ian Benitez, who somehow survived an hour in darkness and icy cold weather.

The boy was found a half-mile from his family’s home, according to the county Fire Department.

Firefighters also rescued Reno and Joan Chackel, 91 and 77, respectively. The Chackels lived south of Highway 192, in an area under evacuation warning but not mandatory orders.

Responders found Joan clinging to a tree branch inside her home. She was covered in poison oak and suffered a broken wrist, according to the county Fire Department.

A firefighter broke off the door of a refrigerator and strapped Reno on top of it, and slogged through mud to rescue him. Joan survived, but Reno never fully recovered and died on June 5, shortly after he turned 92.

What the rescuers couldn’t find, the dogs attempted.

Rick Stein and his certified search dog, MacGyver, 5, were assigned to look through debris for bodies.

Stein was the county’s first K-9 handler on the search and rescue team 20 years ago, and on the night before the storm, he was on call and staging for the storm.

At about 6 a.m. the morning of Jan. 9, he and MacGyver, an Australian shepherd, reported first to the intersection of Olive Mill and Hot Springs roads.

The sludge was so thick at some points that he had to carry his dog,

“It was the most devastating thing that we had experienced,” Stein said. “We ended up using our cell phones and Google maps to have a sense of where these properties were,” he said.

On the one-year anniversary, Stein is thoughtful.

“I am remembering the people we lost, the community members and friends, and the great heroic work that all the emergency responders did to try to limit that loss of life,” he said.

Flooded roadways

Law enforcement officers from the Sheriff’s Department, police and California Highway Patrol were staffing evacuation zone road blocks and patrolling the area in the early morning hours of Jan. 9.

The CHP summoned extra units to work that night and into the morning in anticipation of a debris flow.

“We had some inkling that the storm was going to be bad,” said Capt. Cindy Pontes, commander of the Santa Barbara CHP Office. “We had no idea it was going to be as bad as it was.”

Two CHP officers were driving up Olive Mill Road to respond to the explosion, but never made it.

In a dash-cam video that gained national attention, Officers Will Clotworthy and Mike Fabila got caught in the river of mud that lifted the vehicle and turned it 180 degrees, pushing it enough that Clotworthy caught traction and gunned it south to Coast Village Road, which wasn’t yet flooded.

“By God’s grace, they got pushed forward into the roadway,” Pontes said.

The officers radioed to shut down Highway 101 — things were only going to get worse.

(California Highway Patrol photo)

“We had officers stranded in pockets all over,” Pontes said. “Until daylight broke, we didn’t know what were dealing with.”

Mud and debris gushed down the Cold Spring and Hot Springs canyons above Montecito, across Highway 101 and toward the Pacific Ocean. The freeway was so flooded it was closed for nearly two weeks, cutting off Santa Barbara from Southern California.

Pontes says she knew something was wrong that morning. She woke up in her bed from a deep sleep at 3:30 a.m., even though her shift didn’t start for several hours.

It wasn’t until the next day that Pontes was able to see firsthand how bad the damage was. She rode in a Blackhawk helicopter and looked down on Montecito.

“Sheer devastation. It was just unfathomable the destruction that it caused,” she said. “It was by far the worst I have ever seen. I saw boulders as big as buildings. It was devastating. Houses were completely gone.”

One year later

A year later, the community is working to repair and rebuild, and remember what was lost.

Several remembrance and memorial events are planned this month, around the anniversary, including a Wednesday night candlelit procession, called Raising Our Light: An Evening of Remembrance in Montecito.

The Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade is holding a Saturday benefit, Montecito Rising, to recognize the first anniversay of the organization, which formed to help residents literally dig out of the mud following the debris flows. Click here for more information.

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at jmolina@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.
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