In the early morning hours of Jan. 9, a mud-covered California Highway Patrol vehicle came racing down Olive Mill Road to the Montecito Inn, where one of the officers yelled warnings to people to get inside, because a mudflow was coming.
CHP officers Will Clotworthy and Mike Fabila have been with the Santa Barbara-area CHP office for almost three years, and they were working a regular rainy day patrol that morning.
Or so they thought.
Around 4 a.m., flooding on Highway 101, more than usual, prompted them to head up Olive Mill Road in Montecito.
Clotworthy, 28, was driving and Fabila, 29, was navigating him to a reported structure fires when they noticed the road didn’t look quite right.
What happened next was captured on video by their Ford Explorer’s dashcam: the strong flow of water, mud and debris pushing the vehicle south toward Highway 101.
[Scroll down to view the video]
“It was completely normal to us at that point, some mud in the road,” Clotworthy said. “Once we kind of stopped in it, I realized it was high water, not just a little bit of mud, and all of a sudden you could see the tree branches and a huge tree stump.”
The murky, muddy water came up to the vehicle’s door handles and splashed over its bumpers, he said.
“There was no time to do anything, it just picked us up,” Fabila said.
Clotworthy tried to reverse and turn around, but the flow “just hits us full force and picks us up and at that point there’s no traction, no control,” he said.
At the wheel, he tried to keep the vehicle straight and then got some traction — probably because the Explorer has front-wheel drive, unlike some other CHP vehicles, he said.
“Once I knew we had traction on all four tires, then I gunned it — I was like, let’s get out of here,” he said.
They turned onto Coast Village Road and on the dashcam video, Fabila is seen getting out of the vehicle and walking to the intersection of Coast Village and Olive Mill roads.
He is the one that yelled warnings to Montecito Inn people — which Westmont College kinesiology professor Tom Walters remembers as, “Go inside, the flood is coming.”
Fabila ran back to the vehicle — while Clotworthy yelled for him to “get in the car, Mike, get in the f—ing car!” — as the mudflow pushed additional vehicles toward the freeway and flowed onto Coast Village Road.
They were the only police car in the area at the time, with nearby CHP units at San Ysidro Road and on Highway 192, they said.
As other CHP officers closed down Highway 101, they blocked off the Hot Springs Road exit of the roundabout, so drivers would not happen upon the mudflow.
Then they were assigned to help turn around drivers who were stuck on Highway 101.
Fabila called it a “five-hour game of Tetris.”
Small cars were diverted to Los Patos Way, but the exit has a bridge that is too short for most box trucks and semis, so they had to be rerouted, driving the wrong way on Highway 101 to Milpas Street to get off and head north.
At the time they didn’t know the extent of the damage and loss of life, or even that there was a debris flow, they said.
Daylight brought a clearer picture of the damage and the search-and-rescue effort.
“We just thought it was trees and mud, we didn’t know legitimate boulders the size of SUVs came down,” Fabila said.
“I’ve never seen something like that before,” Clotworthy said. “It’s unbelievable … and just scary, frankly.”