The Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office honored its employees with awards for their service in 2018 at its Recognition Awards Program at the Earl Warren Showgrounds Friday morning, during which six individuals were awarded the department’s highest award, the Medal of Valor. Of the six winners only one was a member of the sheriff’s office, the other five members of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. The awardees were sheriff’s deputy and pilot George De Luca, County Fire pilot Matthew Udkow, fire captains Glen Dupont and Thomas Wade, and firefighter-paramedics Bruce Meyers and Brice Wible.
All six received the Medal of Valor for their service in the rescue efforts during the Jan. 9 debris flow last year. As told by county sheriff and event emcee Bill Brown, these six men served as the aircrew for two helicopters that braved hazardous weather the morning of the disaster to evacuate debris flow victims. Inclement weather conditions and darkness prevented the sheriff’s office and fire department’s Air Support Unit from deploying when the mudslide first hit, and it wasn’t until around 6 a.m. that the helicopters took off from their base in Santa Ynez.
Getting to the disaster area was difficult, as low-level cloud cover prevented the flight crews from flying directly over the mountains. Mr. DeLuca piloted copter 3 and initially had to turn back due to clouds over San Marcos Pass. He and his crew finally found scattered pockets of clear sky, which took them a mile offshore before they were able to get beneath the clouds and go toward Montecito. Mr. Udkow flew copter 308 at a 200-foot altitude and 500 knot speed through cloud breaks in the Gaviota Pass, eventually breaking through to the disaster zone. Both crews carried out hoist rescues from the rooftops of Montecito homes, performed evacuations and triage on injured and stranded victims, and assisted with search and recovery operations throughout the day. At one point, Mr. Udkow’s helicopter had to make an emergency landing at a local golf course due to water damage its radio and electrical equipment sustained.
Following the ceremony, Mr. DeLuca told the News-Press that although he doesn’t feel that he did anything above and beyond what anybody else in his position would do, he was nonetheless pleased to receive his department’s highest award. When asked about his memories of that day, he called it “surreal.”
“Seeing houses on fire in the rain and seeing houses consumed by mud, cars upside down, people on their roofs waiting to be rescued, is something I never thought I’d see in this county,” he said.
Mr. Udkow said it was “awesome” that the sheriff’s office chose to include the Santa Barbara County Fire Department for the Medal of Valor. Looking back on January 9, he was surprised at the scale of the disaster and said the rescue efforts were akin to those he participated in following Hurricane Katrina.
“This kind of reminded me of that, just on a smaller swath scale,” Mr. Udkow said.
Other awards handed out for service during last year’s disaster included a Sheriff’s Unit Citation award for the department’s special enforcement team, a task force always on call to respond to high-risk situations beyond the capabilities of normal sheriff’s deputies. Though the SET responded to 13 incidents in 2018, Mr. Brown specifically recognized them for their response to the Jan. 9 debris flow. Mr. Brown also announced that all sheriff’s office employees and local allied public agency safety personnel who participated in debris flow recovery efforts would be recognized with The Thomas Fire-1/9 Debris Flow Major Incident Commendation award, the second MIC bar authorized in the sheriff’s office’s 169-year history. The first is the one for the 2014 Isla Vista mass murder.
Other notable award recipients during Friday’s ceremony included deputies Shae Green and Jessika Rios, who together saved a woman who attempted to commit suicide by hanging in Santa Maria. Ms. Rios also won a second Lifesaving Award for saving an elderly man from choking.
11 deputies were awarded Sheriff’s Commendations for saving unconscious overdose victims with the drug Naloxone, issued by the department’s Naloxone program that was started in 2017.
6 deputies were awarded with the Medal of Courage, the award just beneath the Medal of Valor. One the recipients, Zachary Salce, was off duty when he and his girlfriend Maddison Henslin crawled into a burning apartment in Lompoc to drag an unconscious woman out to safety. While her boyfriend was presented with the Medal of Courage, Ms. Henslin won the Exceptional Civilian award, the department’s highest civilian honor.
The other Exceptional Civilian award winners were Dave Welby, who rescued a suicidal woman straddling a bridge rail in Buellton, Alex Knightly, who helped a deputy apprehend a fighting suspect by blocking him from escaping into an Isla Vista residence, and Julio Cesar Silva Rodriguez, a Rusty’s Pizza delivery driver who helped a UCSB Police Department officer arrest a combative suspect by pinning him to the ground.
Following the ceremony, Mr. Rodriguez told the News-Press that it was an honor to be recognized by the sheriff’s office, which he wants to join.
“I’ve been trying to join the force for a little while now… It just feels good to be recognized by something that I did… virtually without even thinking. I just kind of reacted,” he said.