Montecito debris flows remembrance ceremony
Westmont College President Gayle Beebe speaks during Thursday evening’s remembrance ceremony as 23 candles are held for those who died during the Jan. 9, 2018, debris flows and flash flooding in Montecito. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)
  • Westmont College President Gayle Beebe speaks during Thursday evening’s remembrance ceremony as 23 candles are held for those who died during the Jan. 9, 2018, debris flows and flash flooding in Montecito.
  • A crowd gathers Thursday evening at Westmont College to mark two years since the deadly Jan. 9, 2018, debris flows and flash flooding in Montecito.
  • Survivor Lauren Cantin performs.
  • Twenty-three candles commemorate those who died during the Jan. 9, 2018, debris flows and flash flooding in Montecito.
  • Young singers perform during the ceremony.
  • Lalo Barajas, a survivor of the Montecito debris flows, addresses the crowd.
  • Attendees embrace during Thursday’s ceremony.

A moment of silence, flameless candles and live music at Westmont College were part of a moving remembrance ceremony on Thursday evening to mark the two-year anniversary of the deadly debris flows in Montecito.

In the early morning hours of Jan. 9, 2018, flash flooding and massive debris flows ripped through Montecito after intense rainfall on the fire-denuded hills sent boulders, thick mud, large trees and other debris downhill into the community and the ocean below.

The disaster in Montecito claimed the lives of 23 people, damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes, and forced widespread evacuations.

The bodies of two children — 17-year-old Jack Cantin and 2-year-old Lydia Sutthithepa — remain missing.

The powerful downpour came after the Thomas Fire, the biggest fire in modern California history. In December 2017, it burned through 282,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,000 homes in Ventura County, and additional structures were damaged. 

“If you look around tonight, it’s easy to see we have more than enough support to heal — we have each other,” said Suzanne Grimmesey, chief quality care and strategy officer for the Santa Barbara County Department of Behavioral Wellness. “This is a night of remembrance.”

Thursday’s event, organized by a collaboration of community organizations, drew hundreds of people inside Westmont’s Murchison Gym.

Event organizers invited residents of Montecito and surrounding areas to the commemorative ceremony that embraced growth and how people were drawn together by the catastrophe.

According to Westmont College President Gayle Beebe, who opened the gathering with an invocation, suffering provides an avenue for connections and love.

“As we gather tonight, we are aware of sufferings endured as a community two years ago,” Beebe said. “This is an opportunity for us to find the meaning behind the tragedy and to gain inspiration for our life.”

A solemn procession was held to remember the 23 people who died in the massive mudslides.

Candle-lighting participants included local organizations and individuals who were part of the healing process and responded with compassion during the past two years.

Montecito debris flow survivors Summer Corey and her mother, Carie Baker-Corey, led the participants onstage. Both women were critically injured in the Montecito Creek debris flow, which killed Summer’s twin sister and 25-year-old stepsister.

“We never knew we could hurt so much,” Baker-Corey said. “We have also grown stronger than we ever thought possible. 

“We have chosen happiness and gratitude, and joy and acceptance. We wake up every day and thank God for this beautiful world we live in. … We look forward to the day we are all together again.”

Laurie Rasmussen, a Santa Barbara-based musician, played the harp when the group walked down the aisle. Silence settled in when the procession reached the front of the stage.

Attendees at the event remembered their deceased neighbors, friends and loved ones, and others who grieve.

The community stepped up to help one another with recovery efforts and the healing process in the aftermath of the debris flows, according to Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade Executive Director Abe Powell.

“Everybody had something to give,” Powell said. “Everybody, whether it was a helping hand to clean up, arms for a hug, ears to listen, funds for recovery or the wisdom to help weave the community together.”

Debris flow survivor Lauren Cantin paid tribute by singing “You'll Never Walk Alone.”

Cantin was pulled out of the mud after she was trapped for hours inside a destroyed home on Hot Springs Road. Lauren’s mother was badly injured but also rescued about a quarter-mile away in Montecito. Her father, brother and the family dog were swept away to their deaths. 

New projects and capabilities were generated as a result of connections in the community that strengthened Montecito, said Sharon Byrne, executive director of the Montecito Association.

“We have come together as a community in amazing ways,” Byrne told the crowd. “You should be proud of your community.”

Ralph Lalo Barajas, a debris flow survivor, fought back tears as he recounted Jan. 9, 2018.

Attendees were heard crying in the background when Barajas spoke into the microphone. Barajas’ longtime partner died in the debris flows.

“There has been a lot of people that have come to help me,” Barajas said.

The event featured a singing group of students from the Cold Spring School District, the Montecito Union School District, Crane Country Day School, Laguna Blanca's Lower School and Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic School.

Amy Alzina, superintendent/principal of the Cold Spring School District, and Montecito Union School District Superintendent Anthony Ranii introduced the young performers, who held battery-powered candles.

“Tonight is about continuing to lean on each other, but it’s also about hope,” Alzina said. “Our students give us hope each day.”

The remembrance gathering concluded with a reception that included hot soup, cookies and beverages.

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.