‘We never knew we could hurt so much. We’ve also grown stronger than we ever thought possible.’
Two years removed from one of the worst natural disasters in Santa Barbara County history, hundreds packed into Murchison Gym at Westmont College Thursday night to remember those who were lost in the Montecito debris flow.
It was a chance to remember the suffering endured by the local community. An opportunity to join together in grief and sorrow. A time to reflect on the resilience shown and the life-long bonds created following the Jan. 9, 2018 event.
As the event got underway, a procession of survivors, family and friends, first responders, elected officials, volunteers and others walked down the center aisle of the gymnasium carrying 23 flameless candles – one for each of the victims who lost their lives. The victims were: Jonathan Benitez, 10; Kailly Benitez, 3; Joseph Francis Bleckel, 87; Martin Cabrera-Munoz, 48; David Cantin, 49; Jack Cantin, 17; Peter Fleurat, 73; Josephine “Josie” Gower, 69; John McManigal, 61; Alice Mitchell, 78; James Mitchell, 89; Mark Montgomery, 54; Caroline Montgomery, 22; Marilyn Ramos, 27; Rebecca Riskin, 61; Roy Rohter, 84; Pinit “Oom” Sutthithepa, 30; Peerawat Sutthithepa, 6;Lydia Sutthithepa, 2; Richard Taylor, 79; Faviola Benitez Calderon, 28; Morgan Christine Corey, 25; and Sawyer Corey, 12.
Westmont President Dr. Gayle Beebe was first to take to the stage and explained that while some may wish they could push their pain and suffering away, Thursday’s gathering was an opportunity to remember the contributions of those no longer with us.
“As much as I wish I could avoid suffering, suffering always gives me an avenue of connection with people I’ve never known and the depth and capacity that you learn to know and love one another in the midst of suffering,” Dr. Beebe said.
Following a moment of silence for the victims, Carie Baker-Corey, the mother of Morgan and Sawyer, was joined on stage with her daughter, Summer. Ms. Baker-Corey thanked the community for holding her family up after they were battered and bruised and left with nothing.
“The loss of these young, beautiful lives has changed us in so many ways,” she said. “We have experienced a sadness we never knew and an emptiness that never goes away. There’s no more snuggles, there’s no more love. There’s no more laughter in the halls of our home. We never knew we could hurt so much. We’ve also grown stronger than we ever thought possible.
“We have chosen happiness and gratitude, joy and acceptance. We wake up every day and thank God for this beautiful world we live in and for sparing our lives. We are truly blessed and look forward to the day we are all together again. We’ll always carry a bond with Sawyer and Morgan, as they will always be a part of our lives.”
Lauren Cantin, who lost her father, brother and family dog in the tragedy, was accompanied on the piano by Renee Hamaty as she sang a beautiful rendition of the 1963 song “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” by Gerry and the Pacemakers.
John “Abe” Powell, executive director of the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade – a group of volunteers who helped Montecito residents in the wake of the disaster, then took to the stage and opened by thanking Westmont for opening their venue for residents to join together.
“I’d say they rolled out the red carpet, but I think it’s actually maroon,” he said, drawing a laugh from the audience in what was otherwise a very somber remembrance.
“Tonight we’re here to remember the people we lost and we’re here to remember the people that are still here among us,” Mr. Powell said. “It’s also important to remember the things that have given us strength and hope since 1/9. When the mountain came down, it broke down walls, it smashed houses, it took away loved ones, our friends and neighbors, but it also broke down invisible walls between us. Immediately it was clear that we’re all in this together whether you like it or not.”
As neighbors and first responders arrived to offer aid and help to those in need, Mr. Powell said this was the first thread in the community safety net that has been building for the past two years.
“In the aftermath of the disaster, the whole community rose up to help the survivors face the challenge of recovery and the challenge of healing,” he said. “And we discovered something, and that’s that everybody had something to give. Whether it was a helping hand to clean up, arms for a hug, ears to just sit and listen, funds for recovery, or the wisdom to help weave the community together. Each of these things added threads to our safety net.”
The more threads woven into the net made the community even stronger.
“Look how strong we have become by pulling together in the way we have,” he added. “By being here tonight, you are all affirming that connection and that compassion and caring that binds us all together.”
Mr. Powell then asked the attendees affected by the event to stand together as one.
“Let’s weave our community safety net so tightly that no one could fall through, because we are all holding onto each other with so much strength and so much love that it’s too much for any of us to ever let go.”
Ralph “Lalo” Barajas then shared his story from the 1/9 event, and recalled hanging onto an oak tree outside of his home until help arrived. Mr. Fleurat, his partner of 17 years, did not survive the disaster. Mr. Barajas remembered countless people at All Saints by the Sea offering food or coffee – as well as a pair of pants way too long and too big. A doctor from Cottage Hospital was at the church and offered him a pair of shoes. Another neighbor offered him a hot shower. It was those small, simple things that helped Mr. Barajas see the beauty of the community.
Perhaps what was most memorable for Mr. Barajas was the shuttle from Montecito to Santa Barbara City College, which he said felt like two different worlds.
“There were still clouds over Montecito,” he said. “There was still a lot of devastation, but as soon as I started to come out by the bird refuge area it just looked like an amazing, beautiful day. I couldn’t believe that these two dualities were happening at the same time. As I’m looking forward at the blue skies and beauty of Santa Barbara, I look over my right shoulder back to Montecito and I could see a double rainbow. I just thought ‘how could this be, these two things existing at once?’”
Six months ago, on Mr. Fleurat’s birthday, Mr. Barajas joined the Bucket Brigade for work on the trails above Montecito. He cancelled all of his plans and was glad he volunteered.
“I remember being on the trail and feeling that Peter was there with me,” he said.
Dr. Amy Alzina, superintendent of Cold Spring District, and Anthony Ranii, superintendent of the Montecito Union School District, then gave remarks and shared what their students say gives them hope. Whether it was hoping the Tooth Fairy would visit, caring about the world and their families, or event being excited and enthusiastic that something could occur, the kindergarten through sixth-grade students had various opinions on the matter. One student eloquently described hope as “you always have faith and trust in yourself and never let it go,” Mr. Ranii said.
After the school officials introduced the children’s chorus from Montecito schools, Renee Dektor, who lost her home in the debris flow, shared her memories from the January morning.
She remembered walking through the mud and debris and was overwhelmed. As she looked to the ground, she saw a book titled “Start From Where You Are.” The singer and songwriter has since found comfort in the local community song circles held throughout town and wrote a song titled after the book, which the children then performed for the crowd.
As the event came to a close, attendees gathered in the lobby and out front of the gym to share a bowl of soup provided by the Organic Soup Kitchen. Some continued to be overcome with emotion. Many people hugged one another or exchanged pleasantries. But all were closely-knit. Together.