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Hopes of finding survivors drop after Calif. mudslides

  • Bill Asher walks through mud in his home damaged by storms 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 the mudslides that slammed this wealthy coastal town. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez) Marcio Jose Sanchez

  • A structure damaged from storms is shown in Montecito, Calif., Thursday. ap photo

  • A woman and a man stand in front of a structure damaged from storms in Montecito, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018. Hundreds of rescue workers slogged through knee-deep ooze and used long poles to probe for bodies Thursday as the search dragged on for victims of the mudslides that slammed this wealthy coastal town. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez) Marcio Jose Sanchez

  • Emergency crew members work on storm damage in Montecito, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018. Rescue workers slogged through knee-deep mud and used long poles to probe for bodies Thursday as the search dragged on for victims of the mudslides that slammed this wealthy coastal town. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez) Marcio Jose Sanchez

  • In this Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018 still image from video, cars and debris that washed to the coast from storms and flooding are shown on a beach in Montecito, Calif. Rescue workers slogged through knee-deep ooze and used long poles to probe for bodies Thursday as the search dragged on for victims of the mudslides that slammed this wealthy coastal town. (AP Photo/Aron Ranen) Aron Ranen

  • Alex Broumand of the Montecito Fire Department walks in mud in front of homes damaged from storms 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 the mudslides that slammed this wealthy coastal town. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez) Marcio Jose Sanchez

  • Large rocks and mud are shown in front of a house in Montecito, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018. Hundreds of rescue workers slogged through knee-deep ooze and used long poles to probe for bodies Thursday as the search dragged on for victims of the mudslides that slammed this wealthy coastal town. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez) Marcio Jose Sanchez

  • The roof of a structure damaged from storms sits over mud and rocks in Montecito, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018. Hundreds of rescue workers slogged through knee-deep ooze and used long poles to probe for bodies Thursday as the search dragged on for victims of the mudslides that slammed this wealthy coastal town. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez) Marcio Jose Sanchez

  • This Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018, photo provided by Oprah Winfrey shows Winfrey standing in debris and mud flow as she looks at her neighbors property in Montecito, Calif. As search dogs clambered on heaps of wood that used to be homes, mud-spattered rescue teams from all over California worked their way through the ruins of Montecito, an enclave of 9,000 people northwest of Los Angeles that is home to celebrities. (Oprah Winfrey via AP) Oprah Winfrey



Associated Press
Thursday, January 11, 2018

MONTECITO, Calif. — More than two full days after mudslides ravaged the coastal town of Montecito, the search for the missing became an increasingly desperate exercise Thursday, with growing doubts about whether anyone would be found alive. Seventeen people from ages 3 to 89 were confirmed dead, and eight others were unaccounted for.

“They’re not going to find survivors anymore. They’re going to find bodies in the mud,” said David Weinert, who feared two of his neighbors were among the dead and turned out to be right in at least one case. “It’s emotional for me to say this, but I think they’re gone.”

The air smelled of sewage and ash as more than a dozen firefighters 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 Labrador retrievers swam around a debris-filled swimming pool, trying to pick up any scent.

“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 disaster, touched off by heavy rain, took many homeowners by surprise early Tuesday, despite evacuation orders and warnings issued days in advance that mudslides were possible because recent wildfires in the hills had stripped away vegetation that normally holds soil in place.

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.

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.

County authorities sent a shudder through the community early Thursday when they reported that the number of people unaccounted for had surged from 16 to 48. But within an hour, they said they had made a clerical error and the actual number of missing was eight.

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.

Overall, 28 people were injured. Twelve remained hospitalized, four in critical condition.

The Santa Barbara sheriff released the names of the dead, which included David Cantin, the father of a 14-year-old girl who was heavily caked in mud when she was pulled from the ruins of her home after a dramatic six-hour rescue.

It also included James Mitchell, who had celebrated his 89th birthday the day before with his wife, Alice, of more than 50 years. She also died.

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 building next door.

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.”