In hard hats and gloves, the rescuers inched along the west side of Montecito Creek on Thursday, looking for signs of people buried in the rubble.
A red fluid trickled through the water at a culvert now packed with boulders. Robert Stine, the search manager, marked the spot on a GPS. Later, he’d have a search dog sniff it.
“It could be blood, or it might not be,” Stine said. “We can’t tell.”
About 20 feet down, in the creek, a searcher spotted a piece of a white sock with a blue stripe, caked in mud.
“We got an article of clothing!” he shouted, spray-painting a nearby rock orange. Again, Stine saved the coordinates.
And so, tediously, meticulously, the searchers scoured the devastation left behind after violent mudslides sent giant boulders tumbling and powerful streams surging through neighborhoods, sweeping homes off their foundations, mangling cars and taking at least 17 lives.
Hundreds of rescuers slogged though the destruction searching for survivors. But as time passed, their prospects turned more grim.
Two days after Tuesday’s deluge, up to 43 people were still missing.
“There have been many miraculous stories of people lasting many days,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told reporters Thursday afternoon. “We certainly are searching for a miracle right now.”
Back at Montecito Creek, a cadaver dog joined Stine’s crew and sniffed the marked areas but got no scent. The fluid was probably gear oil, they figured.
They packed up to go to the next spot.
Rescue teams carried shovels and crowbars, and duct-taped their boots on so they wouldn’t lose them in the mud. They trudged past broken tables and fallen trees. One rescuer picked up a crumpled Polaroid photograph covered in dirt.
They probed at the muck with poles, feeling for hidden hazards: pools, open manholes or septic tanks lurking below.
“It’s essentially quicksand,” said Capt. Mark Seastrom of the Ventura County Fire Department. “If there’s a hole, we’ll fall and keep going until hitting the bottom.”
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SOURCE: LA Times, Joe Mozingo, Brittny Mejia and Alene Tchekmedyian