Marin County search team returns from Montecito mudslides

Multi-story walls of mud. Cars carried from the hills to the beach. A life-size statue buried to its neck in muck. 

There are images from the Montecito mudslide disaster in Santa Barbara that a Bay Area task force won't forget. 

"It's amazing the power of a debris flow, to take a house off its foundation and carry it down the road," said Randy Engler, a Battalion Chief with the Marin County Fire Dept. and leader of Regional Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1.

California has a dozen such squads spread across the state. 

Never before the Santa Barbara mud flow, have all of them been sent at once to the same disaster. 

But with people missing, amid homes that collapsed and washed away, the teams were essential.  

"We look for things like cars in driveways, or if cars are still in the garage," said Engler, explaining the exhaustive process of searching properties, looking for a void, or cavity where someone might be trapped.   

"We have dogs, both live-scent and cadaver dogs, we call out, and we have cameras," he detailed, "and we can cut holes in walls and roofs and get cameras in to see in those voids." 

Engler's team has eighty members from various agencies across the North Bay, specially trained not only in search and rescue, but heavy equipment, engineering, and evcacuation.  Thirty members spent a week in Montecito, returning late Wednesday night.

They shared cell phone video with KTVU, showing the challenges they faced. 

"It's like quicksand, you have to move quick or you're stuck," observed task force member Bret McTigue, also a Battalion Chief for Marin County Fire Department.

McTigue showed video of a parking structure in the Bonnymede community on the coastline. 

Cars were crushed and submerged in mud, and every one had to be searched.

Team members struggled to move in sticky and contaminated soil, sometimes tethered to each other so one could pull the other along, as they drove probes into the depths.

"We're using primitive tools to basically walk through chest high mud and feeling for anything," explained McTigue. 

Sometimes, huge excavators had to clear a wall of mud in a garage or carport, so the crew could get access, then dig tediously by hand, filling bucket after bucket.  

"We found everything, you can't tell what anything is until you touch it," said McTigue. 

And there were some heart-stopping moments, like lifting a toy doll from the mire.  

"Several times we had to pull stuff out, and we had to look at it for a few seconds to see what it was." 

Sixteen-hour days, hundreds of homes later, the squad did not make any saves, or recover any victims, during their time in Santa Barbara. 

They return saddened for the community's suffering, but touched by the support people showed them, and each other. 

"Just like the Sonoma fires, which brought out the best in people, this event brought out the best in people too," said McTIgue.  

About half the rescue team were also on the Thomas Fire in December, on the same streets and protecting the same houses from wildfire. 

They returned to find many of the homes they saved destroyed by the subsequent mud flows, caused by heavy rain on the scorched canyons.  

A familiar area, now unrecognizable. 

"What the fire didn't get, the mudslide did," said McTigue somberly.