California mudslide takes the lives of the elderly, young; 5 missing

MONTECITO, California. – 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.

If their names and that of 14 other victims were released Thursday, crews kept digging through the mud and debris 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 chance is increasing that we are finding bodies, not survivors. You have to start with accepting the reality of that.”

The Mitchells in love with their house in the seaside enclave of Montecito, where she moved in 1995, on the basis of 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 the dead were killed by “multiple traumatic injuries as a result of a flash flood with mud,” authorities said.

Five people were unaccounted for early Friday, a decrease of up to 43 a day earlier, said Amber Anderson, a spokeswoman for Santa Barbara County.

Sheriff Bill Brown gave the larger number on Thursday but warned that many or most of those people just can be unattainable for the family and friends that report that they could not find them.

“We were able to find people,” Anderson said, but added that the numbers can fluctuate greatly. They said: what is missing-person reports are quickly cleared, but others take time to resolve.

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

Among the seekers were more than a dozen firefighters who climbed through the rubble in the garden of a country house that was torn. Some rescuers used poles to probe the manure for the body, while others waded breast-deep in the mire. Two black Labrador retrievers swam around a debris-filled swimming pool, trying to pick up any scent.

Crews marked the places where the bodies were found, often far away from home and used that information to estimate where other victims would have ended as the rising mud run or buried.

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

The disaster was already unfolding as Santa Barbara County officials sent their first mobile phone alert at 3:50 pm County emergency manager Jeff Gater said officials decided not to send a previously out of concern it can not be taken seriously.

If the rainwater its way downhill with the collection of strength, pried stones from the ground and picked up trees and other debris that flattened houses, cars, and wore at least one body a mile away.

From an aerial view, the community that is home to celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Jeff Bridges appeared in two very different places.

Discarded areas were awash in a sea of mud, with only the highest of trees and some houses buried up to their roofs. In addition to some of the affected areas sat large country estates untouched by the torrent, their lawns are still green and lush landscaping.

After a better look at the damage, officials reduced the number of destroyed homes from 100 to 64 and increased the number of damaged copies 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 team finished in the backyard of the Account of Asher, who lost his palatial home, and a similar he was recovering from next door.

Asher is back with a pickax and five friends and trudged through the rubble to rescue a possession that he could find.

He was still shaken by his harrowing experience on Tuesday with his pregnant wife and two young children as the violent gusher came in with a deafening rumble.

“I looked out my window and saw my car fly,” he said. “I shouted to my family and water started coming in the house. Windows went flying, the doors went flying.”

The family rode out the storm unscathed on the kitchen counter if the debris captured by the walls and water swirled around them.

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


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


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