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Two Highway Patrol officers describe first-hand encounter with the deadly mudflow disaster

Two California Highway Patrol officers at the front line of the Montecito mudflow disaster January 9, are telling their story for the first time as they saw it from the front of a patrol vehicle.

Officers Will Clotworthy and Mike Fabila were responding up Olive Mill Road at the sign of a bright ball of light in the morning sky, trying to figure out what had just happened . It was later learned to be a gas line explosion.

As the officers came up to Hot Springs Road, the roadway was gushing with muddy water and debris from an over flowing creek.

That turned their patrol unit, a Ford SUV , around, in an out-of-control manner as it was surrounded by flowing water, portions of ripped up trees and fractured houses.

It was more than virtually any resident had expected to happen, and the impact could not be measured from just one location.

“I absolutely was not aware of the magnitude of the damage that took place just north of where we we were,” said Clotworthy. That made their radio transmissions the most important description of the unfolding event. Relaying what happened to the dispatch center he said, “there is a very active mudslide coming down Olive Mill towards the 101 right now. It over took our vehicle as we were heading north on Olive Mill and we were barely able to escape and we are down by the freeway now.” Clotworthy said the vehicle got some traction and that enabled him to get away. “The (Ford) Explorer that we were in that night has power to the front wheels so it was able to pick up a little traction on occasion on making contact with the road inch us ahead a little bit. I think also due to the road flattening out and it was a saving grace to allow us to get ahead of it.” Despite the close call, “I wasn’t scared I didn’t even think about the worst that could have happened until after the fact. It was so quick and the adrenaline was pumping and I got out of it,” said Clotworthy. A few blocks away, giant boulders were plowing through homes and 21 lives were lost, with two others unaccounted for in one of the worst disasters in modern times. “I absolutely was not aware of the magnitude. The damage that took place just north of where we we were,” said Clotworthy. The did find people outside and were direct in their message for them to, “Get out of here, get out of here, go, go, go, ” as it was recorded on an in car video camera. Fabila got out of the car at the Coast Village Road intersection that was soon to be washed over with mud, debris and mangled vehicles. “First of all I wanted to make see if the mudslide stopped to see if it continued coming we had to let people know to shut down the freeway. Also to make sure that no one else was that way walking around, no cars on North Jameson, that was my mind set. I wanted to make sure that no else was going to get caught up. If someone was going to come up Olive Mill I could at least flag them down or whatever,” said Fabila. Hotel guests at the Montecito Inn, coming outside to see what was happening were told to stay in the structure and get to a higher spot. No one was hurt, or trapped in the parking garage. Jason Copus with the Inn said he knew of specific cases where the officers actions and warnings prevented guests from getting into their cars where mud was going to flow. He met with the officers Thursday in front of his newly reopened building to share his experiences and thank them for their work that morning. The officers made several warning announcements in the area of the moving mud disaster, then set up a road block at Coast Village and Old Coast Highway. That prevented other vehicles from coming into the area where there was flooding and downed power lines. In a split second recap of what just occurred, Fabila said what most people would be thinking if they were in the patrol car slammed by flood waters, “Wow we got really lucky.”

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