The Investigator, Robert Eringer
Three-and-a-half years after the mountain came down on Montecito — a devastating mudslide and debris flow whose path of destruction took 23 lives and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage — Southern California Edison is finally settling claims.
Here’s what I experienced on that dramatic day in 2018.
Jan. 8, 2018
I got into bed on that Monday evening in my Montecito home and saw an extraordinary image on the ceiling over me. I tried to find the source of projection that might somehow explain its inexplicable presence but could find nothing.
So I grabbed my camera and snapped a photo, which I soon forgot, given the dramatic events that would take place a few hours later.
Those in the mandatory evacuation zone had departed for hotels; most of those, like myself, who were merely in the warning zone, chose to remain, already weary from having evacuated for 10 days a month earlier due to the Thomas Fire.
At about 3:45 a.m. I lay awake, listening to the rain that pounded my roof. Suddenly the earth began to shudder. This thought occurred to me: On top of a torrential rain storm on the heels of the recent Thomas wildfire, are we now having an earthquake?
I slipped out of bed, took a few steps to the glass doors facing north toward the mountains and pushed the curtain aside to behold a surreal night sky aglow in orange and yellow.
Even more astonishing, this glow illuminated an avalanche of muddy water rushing down my garden.
Straight at me.
This was a real-life disaster movie a la Indiana Jones. (I wish I’d been wearing his costume and hat.)
I quickly turned and, within several steps, dirty water smashed through the doors behind me. Within seconds I was knee-deep in cold, slimy mud.
I grabbed my 5-year old grandson, who had been camping out with me, handed him off to his mother (my younger daughter), who moments earlier had awakened and looked out her upper floor window and seen, as had I, what looked to be an apocalypse poised to consume us.
Furry critters below (she later told me) frantically raced in all directions and up trees in their mostly futile attempt to escape a cataclysmic mud-and-debris-slide.
All this was happening in the darkness of night, no lights to switch on due to a power outage, bursts of lightning and thunder amidst the eerie glow, which I later learned had been caused by a gas explosion that blew up several houses and took lives.
We were lucky to have an upper floor suite in our home. Many ranch-style houses in our neighborhood did not.
Moments later, another flow of mud and debris burst through the glass doors on the other side of our house, into the open-plan kitchen/living room, launching furniture in all directions, lodging sofas and stuffed armchairs and tables into the oddest places — and merged with the mud still oozing from my bedroom.
We were not only at ground zero but double ground zero.
Dressed only in boxer shorts and a pair of Merrell Jungle Mocs I’d somehow managed to slip around my feet, I stood dazed and disbelieving, waist deep in mud and sludge.
One of my dogs, having instinctively made a beeline up the stairs mottled in mud, was accounted for; one dog was not. Armed with a flashlight, which quickly muddied and died, I waded through cold, slimy debris-filled mud into the den looking for Lulu. I thought I could hear her whimpering. When the whimpers went silent, I returned to the mud-filled foyer to try to open the front door, a presumed escape.
Of course, the heavy door would not budge as the rising, thickening mud pressured it to remain shut. And good thing, because in my muddled thinking (and having no idea what was out there), trying to leave the house would have been the dumbest move of all — and quite likely fatal.
Had I managed to open the door, the resulting high-pressure flow of mud would have taken me to join a 15-foot river of debris and carry me a quarter mile to Highway 101, by then transformed into a lake — or further beyond, to the ocean. (A friend of mine, I later learned, suffered this horrifying fate — along with many others — for doing just that, identified only by her fingerprints.)
Instead, I returned to the den to try to find Lulu.
After a short rest upstairs, I returned a third time, climbing over furniture, holding onto hope I would find her, in the process not realizing that my legs were being shredded by sharp debris; parts of trees or broken glass.
At one point I lost my footing, slipped and became almost entirely submerged, just barely able to keep my head from going under. Had that happened, I would surely have not been able to resurface and would have drowned in mud.
My grandson, all of 5 years old, was smarter than I. Every time I descended for another look, he tearfully cried out, “Don’t go down there!”
But I just had to try to find my dear little dog.
Ultimately, I had no choice but to call off my search and return upstairs, full of sorrow, believing that Lulu had been buried alive in her doggie bed beneath three feet of mud, maybe never knowing what hit her.
Coated in the gooey stuff from head to toe, I got into the dark shower and turned on a faucet. No water. No power. Nothing.
My daughter phoned 9-1-1 and found their switchboard operator somewhat discombobulated — and inundated with emergency calls like ours.
I called my buddies Howard and Wally. They immediately rallied (4:20 a.m. by then) and tried to reach us, getting only as far as Coast Village Road, the commercial thoroughfare, itself flooded and muddy.
Gaining access to Olive Mill Road was impossible, they discovered, because it was no longer a road but part river and part obstacle course of boulders and fallen trees — and central to many of the fatalities that occurred.
Their presence was a blessing because they informed emergency crews already on the scene where precisely we were trapped, far more effective than a 9-1-1 call. Though at this juncture no one could reach us.
The good news: No new mud surges; just that awful rosy-yellow glow in the sky that made no sense.
The bad news: Looking from the upstairs balcony onto the yard below, I saw only devastation as far as the eye could see. Many of my favorite trees, including a 50-foot pine, were simply no longer standing. (One had rocketed into the garage.) Also: Though it did not occur to me at the time, there was a risk of the house collapsing due to pressure from the mud and also the possibility of explosion and fire from leaking gas.
A rescue crew on foot eventually arrived and called up to us.
Ascertaining we were not in need of immediate medical assistance, they trudged off to tend to life-threatening emergencies on our lane, promising to return for us.
Cries for help could be heard, followed by the sound of jackhammers and chainsaws as rescuers (including a scuba diver) went to work freeing those trapped beneath trees and walls and caved-in roofs.
The Johnson family, our next-door neighbors, appeared — somewhat surreally — in our forecourt, which was relatively free of mud because my house acted as a buffer. My home had taken the hit from behind and kept the mud inside.
They hollered up to me, asking if they could remain until the rescue team returned. I hollered back, instructing them to access our garage and the apartment over it — higher ground — which they did.
Augie Johnson had just pulled a toddler from beneath a car. The toddler had been swept from about a mile upstream and became mangled in debris. Augie handed him off to a fire chief who appeared on the scene, removed mud from his mouth and got him breathing.
As dawn broke, the rescuers returned, ready to evacuate all of us. They entered from two parts of the house, axing their way in.
One of them hollered, “You have a little dog?”
“Yes,” I yelled back. “He’s here upstairs.”
“No, down here.”
I could hardly believe my ears. “A little tan dog?”
“Got it in my arms.”
I had been grieving the loss of Lulu, certain she was gone forever. She’d somehow scampered onto one of the chairs or sofas wedged up against the walls.
Somehow, finding her made everything alright.
But there was no time to celebrate her presence; we had to move fast. The rescue team needed to get us out and get on with evacuating others. They quickly configured our safest route, broke through an exterior window-door in a room less affected by the mud flow and led our procession of family members and pets into a wasteland.
What would normally have been a 30-second walk down a country lane to a main road took a harrowing 15 minutes as we negotiated waist-deep pools of mud, downed trees, boulders — a zigzag path through unrecognizable terrain; past my neighbor’s wreck of a house.
The river of mud from Olive Mill Road had by then emptied into what used to be Highway 101, transforming that vital artery into a deep crater lake. We were greeted by a slew of heavy-duty vehicles, lights flashing, engines humming and overwhelmed rescue workers who helped us into the backseat of a fire truck.
About 10 minutes later a flatbed cattle truck carrying survivors like us pulled up alongside. We joined them, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, shivering in the morning chill, everyone covered in mud from head to toe, including a woman suffering from flu.
The vehicle lurched and rolled south on Olive Mill, leaving everyone aboard wide-eyed and aghast at the devastation around us. A long stretch of ranch houses on the east side of the road had been ripped from their foundations, walls down, roofs collapsed; we could see clear through every house. Cars, trucks and minivans had been pushed into hedges and wrapped around trees.
A strong smell of natural gas filled our nostrils as new survivors were led from the remnants of their homes to join us.
For the first time, it dawned on me that we were in the midst of a major natural disaster, a life-and-death situation.
The vehicle stopped twice more to collect survivors whom we managed to squeeze within the confines of the flatbed, along with their very grateful, very muddy pets. Dogs that hitherto loathed one another, who ferociously faced off at fences, were too shocked to defend turf they no longer had and, in a bout of canine compassion, appeared happy to reacquaint themselves with one another.
“You made it out, too? Whew — what a night!”
To avoid flooding and obstacles, the flat-bed truck took various detours, finally grinding to a halt at the strip mall off Coast Village Road just before Montecito Mart.
A latte would have been nice.
But, alas, on this dark morning even Starbucks was closed.
A few days later, I purchased a new laptop and uploaded photos from my camera, thus rediscovering the image that had appeared on my bedroom ceiling a few hours before all hell had broken loose.
Robert Eringer is a longtime Montecito author with vast experience in investigative journalism. He welcomes comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.