A car sits in flooded water on Highway 101 in Montecito, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018. Rescue workers slogged through knee-deep ooze and used long poles to probe for bodies Thursday as the search dragged on for victims of Tuesday’s storm after mudslides slammed this wealthy coastal town. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Torrential California mudslide takes lives of elderly, young

“The likelihood is increasing that we’ll be finding bodies, not survivors. You have to start accepting the reality of that.”

The oldest victim swept away in a California mudslide was Jim Mitchell, who had celebrated his 89th birthday the day before. He died with his wife of more than 50 years, Alice.

The youngest, 3-year-old Kailly Benitez, was one of four children killed.

As their names and those of 14 other victims were released Thursday, crews kept digging through the muck and rubble looking for more people.

“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.”

The Mitchells were in love with their home in the seaside enclave of Montecito where they moved in 1995, according to their daughter. They also loved their dog, Gigi, who is missing.

The other children killed were 6-year-old Peerawat Sutthithepn, 10-year-old Jonathan Benitez and 12-year-old Sawyer Corey. None of the adult dead shared their last names.

All of the dead were killed by “multiple traumatic injuries due to flash flood with mudslides,” authorities said.

Forty-three people were missing, but many or most of them may simply have been unreachable to the family and friends who reported they couldn’t find them, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said.

Some smaller number, which authorities wouldn’t give, were actively being investigated as missing people who could be dead under the debris.

Pitney said many rescues were still happening Wednesday and Thursday, but most if not all were of people who were safe but just wanted to get out of the area.

Among the searchers were more than a dozen firefighters who 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 black Labrador retrievers swam around a debris-filled swimming pool, trying to pick up any scent.

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 mudslide, touched off by heavy rain, took many homeowners by surprise early Tuesday, despite warnings issued days in advance that mudslides were possible because recent wildfires had stripped hillsides of vegetation that normally holds soil in place.

Related: BC company sends planes to fight California wildfires

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.

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.

From an aerial view, the community that is home for celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Jeff Bridges looked like two vastly different places.

Trashed areas were 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.

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.

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 restoring 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 unharmed on kitchen counters as the debris smashed through the walls and water swirled around them.

Asher’s return to the scene, where murky water was knee-deep, turned up at least one gem: his wife’s engagement ring, the only keepsake she wanted him to find.

___

Melley contributed from Los Angeles. Associated Press writers Amanda Lee Myers, John Antczak, Michael Balsamo and Andrew Dalton in Los Angeles and Aron Ranen in Montecito contributed to this report.

___

Christopher Weber And Brian Melley, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Parksville artist aims to produce zero waste with creations, business

Margie Preninger even dabbled with dryer lint years ago

RDN dealing with high interest in backyard cannabis production

New policy proposed to address challenges with Health Canada licences

Vancouver measles outbreak prompts vaccine vigilance on Island

No cases here yet, but Island health authorities push measles vaccinations - and not just for kids

Jeep bursts into flames on highway near Nanoose Bay

Emergency crews responded to blaze at approximately 9:15 a.m. on Tuesday

Students give two thumbs up to no more B.C. student loan interest

Eliminating the loan interest charges could save the average graduate $2,300 over 10 years

Ontario man accused of killing 11-year-old daughter dies in hospital, police say

Roopesh Rajkumar had been hospitalized with what police described as a self-inflicted gunshot wound

Manitoba ‘pauses’ link with ex-B.C. premier Gordon Campbell after allegations

Campbell had been hired to review two major hydro projects

City of Port Alberni cancels tourist train operations for 2019

Steam train to McLean Mill is out of commission for repairs; city wants to re-examine rail costs

Heritage minute features Japanese-Canadian baseball team, internment

The Vancouver Asahi baseball team won various championships across the Pacific Northwest

UPDATE: Woman, off-duty cop in critical condition after stabbing outside B.C. elementary school

The officer was interceding in an alleged assault when he and the woman were stabbed

$10-a-day child care not in 2019 budget, but advocate not irked

Sharon Gregson with the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of B.C. says NDP on track to deliver promise

B.C. Seniors Advocate questions labour shortage in care homes

Are there really no workers, or are care aide wages too low?

B.C. business groups worry about looming economic decline in wake of NDP budget

The party’s second government budget focused on plenty of spending, business advocates say

Most Read