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UCSB students join search efforts for missing mudslide victims in Montecito

Posted at 10:26 AM, Jan 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-08 13:26:10-05

Saturday marks three years since one of the most devastating and deadly natural disasters in local history.

Evidence of the mudslide and debris flow that ravaged Montecito still remains and it is evidence locals say serves as an important reminder of what happened and may one day bring closure to grieving families.

Kim Cantin and her family had evacuated their Montecito home multiple times in December 2017 due to the Thomas Fire. Just a few weeks later, in the early morning hours of January 9, 2018, a perilous wave of debris barreled down the canyons.

"I looked to the front of the house and mud starts roaring in," Cantin said, recounting the horrifying series of events. "I remember kind of waking up and I didn't know where I was. Was I in heaven? Was I in a war zone? And I was actually on a debris pile about two football fields away."

The magnitude of her tragedy was not yet known.

"It's amazing that my daughter and I survived it," Cantin said. The astonishing video of her then-14-year-old daughter Lauren being rescued from the mud was replayed dozens of times on national news programs.

Longtime Montecito resident and community organizer Abe Powell worried mudslides could be a fatal problem after the Thomas Fire.

We were evacuated and the internet went out and as soon as it came back on, I saw them pulling Lauren Cantin out of the house," Powell said. "Lauren was my daughter's tent mate in middle school and very close friend so that was all the scope that I needed to blow us out of the water. I mean, we were just crushed."

Lauren and Kim Cantin were hospitalized. The next day, a Sheriff's deputy visited Kim in the hospital to notify her about her husband, Dave.

"He said they had found Dave and my first response was 'Alive?' in hope," Cantin said. "He said 'No.'"

Cantin describes the search for her 17-year-old son Jack as a torturous evolution.

"My daughter even said this the other day, she goes, '[Jack] just kind of vanished and we've never seen him again,'" Cantin said. "That's been the hardest part, it's hard for me to talk about because you want to lay him to rest."

Dave and Jack Cantin were among 23 lives lost that day. Jack and two-year-old Lydia Sutthithepa were never found.

Abe Powell organized a volunteer group called the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade to dig out homes three weeks after the mudslides.

"It was night & day, night & day, night & day for three months," said Powell.

In the last year, University of California Santa Barbara students have joined the mission to bring closure to the Montecito community.

Around the two year mark of the 1-9 Debris Flow, Kim Cantin contacted UCSB to see if they could do anything to help find her son's remains. She was connected with forensic anthropology professor Danielle Kurin.

"I've worked in war zones and this is more complex than a war zone," Kurin told KSBY.

Kurin is leading student caseworkers in a recovery project.

"We've looked at where the Cantin family household was and we've looked at the flow patterns and the archaeology and that helped give us our dig areas," she said.

Last September, they brought in forensic canines to search the area.

"These grave dogs are actually smelling the fat, the body fat of a body as it decays it goes into the soil and there's a chemical reaction happens," Kurin said. "We think those dogs from the Institute of Canine Forensics, we think that's what they are smelling and locating."

Biological anthropology student Nikki Torno is one of about a dozen caseworkers involved with the project.

"Four or even six out of the six dogs did mark that there was something so, at that point, we made sure to focus on those areas with digging," said Torno.

The UCSB team is cautiously optimistic about finding Jack's remains, now three years later. However, there are signs of hope.

"We have found a lot of stuff from Jack's bedroom," said Kurin. She thinks there is less than a 10 percent probability of finding Jack's remains but their research has given them strong confidence that he did not wash out to the ocean.

For archaeological anthropology student Gabriella Campbell, the search has personal meaning as a Santa Barbara native.

"It's been so impactful for my first forensic experience to be in my own backyard," Campbell said. "It's an honor and a privilege but it is heartwrenching - I'm really glad we are able to apply our skills to help."

Powell's Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade has partnered with local public agencies and organizations to hold a virtual memorial service Saturday. He says it's important to maintain what he calls "community wisdom" of local history.

"To be really resilient you have to remember what can happen in your neighborhood," said Powell.

Meanwhile, Kim Cantin's quest for closure presses on.

"It would be a relief knowing that I could lay part of [Jack's] remains next to his dad."

The UCSB student researchers are planning more excavation work this year. The team appreciates donations of gardening tools and PPE. To make a donation or give a financial gift, contact the UCSB Anthropology Department.

A memorial service called "Raising Our Light" will be streamed live on Zoom and Facebook at 6:30 p.m. Saturday. Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Taylor will begin the program. Then, firefighters will light 23 candles in honor of the victims. After a moment of silence, local schools and churches will ring their bells 23 times.

To register for this zoom event click here: This event can also be viewed on Facebook Live here: