Doctor, elderly couple, 6-year-old among mudslide victims
MONTECITO, Calif. (AP) — A doctor and his daughter who died in the arms of her brother were among the 18 people killed in devastating mudslides that brought tragedy and sorrow to the idyllic coastal community of Montecito, California.
Other victims included a young mother asleep with her 3-year-old daughter as her 10-year-old nephew slumbered nearby, and a woman and her 89-year-old husband of more than 50 years who celebrated his birthday the day before.
Here are their stories and those of others in a community where victims ranged from captains of industry to the people who manicure their lawns:
Sisters Sawyer Corey, 12, and Morgan Christine Corey, 25, were sleeping when the mud smashed into their home.
Sawyer was found dead earlier in the week. Her sister’s body was found Saturday morning in mud and debris.
“We ask that you keep this devastated family in your thoughts and prayers,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said.
Sawyer’s twin sister, Summer, and their mother, Carie Baker, were injured and were being treated at a hospital, relatives reported.
Dr. Mark Montgomery and his family returned from a Brazilian vacation only two days before the mudslide that killed him and daughter Caroline came crashing down a hillside into their two-story home.
Montgomery’s wife and oldest daughter had left for a business trip to New York soon after returning home Sunday. He stayed behind with 22-year-old Caroline, who had just graduated from college, and his 20-year-old son, Duffy.
The three were asleep before dawn Tuesday when the mudslide slammed into their home. The 54-year-old physician, sleeping downstairs, was swept away.
His daughter, sleeping upstairs, was engulfed in mud and other debris. As Duffy tried to save her she died in his arms, said Dr. Michael Behrman, a longtime family friend. Her brother suffered a broken shoulder blade and other injuries.
Behrman had been staying in the Montgomery family’s home while they vacationed, his own home having burned down during the devastating wildfire that struck the area last month.
“Having a house burned down and losing all your stuff doesn’t seem like a very big deal now,” he told The Associated Press. “It’s losing Mark and his daughter and the utter devastation of the area that has gone along with that. I, like everybody here, knew several of the other people who died.”
He was especially close to Montgomery, having recruited his fellow orthopedic surgeon to Santa Barbara more than 20 years ago and having mentored Montgomery during his residency.
“He made a huge difference in people’s lives,” Behrman said. “He was an absolutely wonderful guy, who had a kind word for everybody, very friendly, compassionate and wonderful with his patients.”
As word of the physician’s death spread, tributes poured onto social media.
“He fixed my hand after a camping accident in 2012, two weeks before my wedding,” David Iglesias told KSBY. “I cut all the tendons in my fingers. He was able to reattach them. I have full use and feeling in my hand because of Dr. Montgomery.”
Marilyn Ramos was asleep in bed with her 3-year-old daughter, Kaelly Benitez, when the mudslide came crashing through their rental home, carrying both to their deaths.
Also killed was Kaelly’s 10-year-old cousin, Jonathan Benitez, who was asleep nearby.
Marilyn’s husband, Antonio Benitez, was injured, as was his brother, Victor, who is Jonathan’s father. Victor’s 2-year-old son survived, but his wife, Faviola Benitez Calderon, 28, was missing.
The brothers, immigrants from Mexico, owned a gardening and landscaping business in Montecito. Marilyn was a stay-at-home mom.
“My sister was such a good person, she only thought of others to the point that she would cry with you when you were hurt or sick,” Jennifer Ramos said between sobs as she spoke by phone from her home in Mexico.
Her 27-year-old sister called relatives every day in the town of Marquelia, near Acapulco on Mexico’s Pacific coast, Jennifer Ramos said. When a call didn’t come Tuesday she sensed something was wrong.
During her last call home the day before, Marilyn put her daughter on the phone and she happily told her aunt about the toys she received on Jan. 6, The Day of the Magi, a holiday widely celebrated in Latin America.
During a visit home in September, Marilyn Ramos told her family she missed Mexico and hoped to return someday. On Friday, her family spoke with Mexican officials about bringing her body back.
The mudslide decimated the family of Pinit Sutthithepa, killing his 6-year-old son, Peerawat and stepfather, Richard Loring Taylor, 79. Sutthithepa and his 6-year-old daughter, Lydia, are missing.
“At 4 a.m. the house was obliterated by mud, boulders and rushing water. Literally nothing is left,” Mike Caldwell, Sutthithepa’s boss at Toyota of Santa Barbara, wrote on a GoFundMe page seeking help for the family.
His wife and mother were working at the time. Another relative was rescued by firefighters.
“This family has lost everything but the clothes they were wearing,” Caldwell wrote.
Sutthithepa immigrated from Thailand, leaving behind his wife and two children but sending them money for years until he could bring them to the United States, a friend, Poy Sayavongs, told the Lee Central Coast News.
“They finally were able to make it to the states in the summer of 2016,” Sayavongs said. “It’s cruel -- they only had a short time together before this tragedy struck.”
A month earlier, the family had evacuated to a Red Cross shelter for a night as the devastating wildfire threatened their home.
“I would’ve never imagined Peerawat would’ve been killed by the mudslides, when they were able to survive the Thomas fire,” family friend Kevin Touly told the Central Coast News. “We’re just so heartbroken.”
Peerawat, known as Pasta, loved trains, Touly told the Los Angeles Times.
Sometimes, Sutthithepa’s wife would join him at work and bring along their children, co-worker Anneliese Place told the Times.
Peerawat would run around her desk and giggle, she said.
The body of 87-year-old Joseph Francis Bleckel was found in his Romero Canyon home four days after the disaster hit.
Bleckel and his late wife, Margaret, did not have any children but were always surrounded by 20 nieces and nephews, KSBY-TV reported .
“Basic idea is that he really was an adopted father,” nephew Gerald Bleckel told the station. “God, they treated us so special. I really did feel like it was a special relationship.”
Joseph Bleckel came out of Depression-era poverty, joined the Navy and served in the Korean War and then used the GI Bill to get an education, according to the family.
“He got a degree and he had a Masters in electrical engineering,” said Jim Bleckel, another nephew. “He was a scientific guy, very methodical and precise in everything, very polite.”
Joseph Bleckel worked for Westinghouse Electric Corp. in supply chain quality control until he retired at age 66. The family told KSBY he loved to read, travel and watch the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Peter Fleurat was at home with his partner of 17 years during Tuesday’s violent storm when the couple felt the floor beneath them shake and roll.
Moments later, a wall of mud burst through their walls and swept him and Ralph “Lalo” Barajas away.
“The last thing Peter yelled out to me was, ‘Lalo, grab onto some wood and don’t let go,’” Barajas told CBS News. “That was the last I heard of him.”
Barajas was rescued, treated for cuts, bruises and a sprained neck and released from a Santa Barbara hospital. He searched for his partner until he got the news that he had died.
Fleurat was a member of the Ventura County Koi Society with a great sense of humor, society president Mary Oxman told the Los Angeles Times. He sometimes showed up to meetings wearing bright colors or silly sunglasses.
“He liked to do silly, off-the-wall things just to see how people would react,” Oxman said.
Barajas is the owner of The Rose, a popular Mexican restaurant in Santa Barbara, and his niece, Angelique Barajas, responded to offers of help from customers by launching a GoFundMe page for him.
She said her uncle will need money to replace his home and possessions — and to bury his partner.
Jim and Alice Mitchell had been married for more than 50 years and had just celebrated Jim’s 89th birthday when they were swept away along with their dog Gigi.
Jim, who worked in labor relations, and Alice, a schoolteacher, had moved to Montecito in 1995 after raising their two children in Southern California’s Orange County.
“They’re an adorable couple, and they were in love with their house,” their daughter, Kelly Weimer, said Wednesday before learning they had died.
She last spoke to them Monday when she called to wish her father a happy birthday.
The couple had planned to stay at home the night of the storm and have a quiet dinner. Their grandson had taken them out to celebrate the day before.
The Mitchells are survived by their two children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Rebecca Riskin was the picture of success and health before she was killed.
Her firm, Riskin Partners, credited the former ballerina with having closed more than $2 billion in high-end real estate sales since she founded the company in the early 1990s.
“She’s leaving a huge void. She was exceptional,” said Gina Conte, who described the 61-year-old Riskin as her best friend, mentor and confidante.
Conte said Riskin, who was the maid of honor at her wedding, took joy in pairing the perfect home with the perfect family and loved cooking, going for long walks and spending movie nights with her family.
Riskin was swept away after the mudslide tore through her living room, Conte said, adding that Riskin’s husband survived because he was in bed in a part of the house that stayed intact. Her body was found Wednesday near a highway.
Riskin Partners spokeswoman Erin Lammers said Riskin was a member of the American Ballet Theater in New York before an injury cut short her dancing career.
She returned to her hometown of Los Angeles in 1979, where she began selling high-end real estate on the city’s west side. She moved to Montecito in the early 1990s.
Riskin is survived by her husband, two grown children and a grandson.
Lauren Cantin became the face of survival when rescuers pulled the mud-covered 14-year-old girl from her flattened home earlier this week. Authorities said her 49-year-old father, David, died and her 17-year-old brother, Jack, is missing.
David Cantin was vice president of global sales for a leading developer of instruments used by surgeons. Cantin’s company, NDS Surgical Imaging, developed some of the medical industry’s earliest digital imaging technologies for minimally invasive surgery.
He graduated from Bryant University and obtained a graduate degree from Xavier University, according to his employer’s website. He also was a Scoutmaster for the Boy Scouts.
His house was destroyed by the mudslide that buried his daughter for hours before firefighters could rescue her.
“I thought I was dead for a minute,” she told them before an ambulance took her away.
Her mother, Kim, also was rescued.
NeoTract, a maker of devices used in urology, launched a fundraising page asking for financial support for the family.In two days it more than tripled its goal of $20,000.
Josephine “Josie” Gower was celebrated by family as a woman who loved and embraced life for each one of her 69 years.
“I have never met anyone quite like her and never will again,” her daughter-in-law Sarah Gower wrote on Facebook after authorities confirmed Gower was among those killed by the mudslides. “She was the life of the party, always, and loved us all so fiercely. She lived for her kids and for our kids.”
Gower’s own Facebook page reveals a woman with a playful love of life. One photo shows her dressed as a mermaid by a pool while others show her riding horses and cuddling with her cats.
“A bundle of fun,” her daughter-in-law said. “She was just simply the most loving, cheerful, beautiful, strong, independent force. We will miss her so.”
She is survived by two adult children and three grandchildren.
Friends and family remembered John McManigal as a dedicated family man who died trying to help one of his six children flee the pre-dawn mudslide as it enveloped their home.
Awakened by a last-second warning Tuesday that disaster was approaching, McManigal, 61, roused his 23-year-old son, Connor, and the pair tried to flee. He was killed. His son, carried a mile by the mud, survived.
“Connor, is recovering from serious injuries in the hospital,” a friend said in a statement posted on a GoFundMe page created for the family.
The posting described McManigal as “an amazing man, father of six, and a loving husband.”
His community activities included serving as a host father for the Santa Barbara Foresters baseball club, for which Connor played.
“Like the rest of our larger Santa Barbara community, we are crushed by this tragedy,” the club said in a statement. “We send love, prayers, and strength to the affected families and their loved ones.”
Roy Rohter was the revered founder of a private Catholic school in nearby Ventura.
The 84-year-old former real estate broker had fled his Montecito home just last month when it came under threat from a wildfire. He died at that home, authorities confirmed Thursday.
“Roy believed intensely in the power of a Catholic education,” St. Augustine Headmaster Michael Van Hecke, said this week. “He’s been a deep supporter of the school in every way and a mentor to me personally, to the faculty and to the kids.”
Officials of the K-12 school Rohter founded in 1994 said his wife was injured in the mudslide but survived.
“Pray also for his wife, Theresa, the gentle giant of charity and grace, and for his children and grandchildren,” the school said in a statement.
Also killed was Martin Cabrera-Munoz, 48.
In addition to Faviola Benitez Calderon, Pinit Sutthithepa and Lydia Sutthithepa, the missing include John “Jack” Keating, 53 and John “Jack” Cantin, 17.
Rogers and Watson reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writers Krysta Fauria in Montecito and Michael Balsamo, Amanda Lee Myers, Robert Jablon and John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this report.