By CHRISTOPHER WEBER and MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ
MONTECITO, Calif. (AP) – 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. Seventeen people were confirmed dead and eight others were missing.
Family members anxiously awaited word on loved ones who hadn’t been heard from since the onslaught early Tuesday.
“It’s just waiting and not knowing, and the more I haven’t heard from them – we have to find them,” said Kelly Weimer, whose elderly parents’ home was wrecked. The couple, Jim and Alice Mitchell, did not heed a voluntary evacuation warning and stayed home to celebrate Jim Mitchell’s 89th birthday.
Santa Barbara 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 later in the morning, they said they had made a clerical error, and the actual number of missing was down to eight.
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 such as Oprah Winfrey.
It was left covered with thick muck, boulders, wrecked cars, splintered lumber and tree limbs in a scene Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown likened to a World War I battlefield.
Downtown, a quaint stretch of cafes and galleries normally bustling with tourists and locals was a staging area for fire trucks and heavy equipment Thursday. Fire and sheriff’s officials hovered over a map spread across the hood of a truck while a fire crew made up of inmates loaded trucks for another day of debris removal.
On the edge of the disaster zone, John Flynn looked dazed as he stood in the driveway of his home. Fallen power lines crisscrossed a neighbor’s yard, trees lay like bowling pins, and the air smelled of wet ash and sewage.
“We came through OK. We are the lucky ones,” he said, shaking his head with the knowledge that one stray boulder on a different trajectory could have taken out his hillside home. Down the block, just the crushed roof of a home stuck out of a sea of dark brown mud.