MONTECITO (CBSLA) — It’s been nearly three weeks since the deadly mudslides in Montecito killed more than 20 people.
The 101 Freeway has reopened, the mud is being cleared, and the healing only getting started.
But as more time passes, stories of heroism are emerging. And more and more, there are stories about how much worse things could have been if not for first-responders.
“We definitely weren’t expecting this to happen,” says Maeve Juarez, a literal hero and first responder.
She is a division group supervisor with the Montecito Fire Department, and as CBS2’s Peter Daut reports, she was in the right place at the right time.
Juarez said the entire department was on duty and deployed throughout the district in anticipation of the rain that night.
Even though they were ready, no one could have predicted what was coming.
“Around 2:30, it really kinda started to rain. I was sitting on the San Ysidro Creek Bridge,” Juarez recalls, “and wanted to go check out another creek that is notorious for flowing during storms. About 65 seconds after I left the bridge, was when the gas explosion took out the bridge and that’s when everything started in the district.”
The 65 seconds was just enough time for Juarez to get out of the blast radius.
“I was parked right here in this void space, this is the bridge that exploded. It definitely didn’t look anything like this before. I don’t know what this is that we’re looking at now.”
Daut tells her how close she came to death.
“Yes, I was incredibly lucky,” she says.
Although shaken and alone, without hesitation, she turned around and headed back toward the 500-foot fireball.
“People started driving down the road rolling their windows down yelling my house is on fire,” she said.
She also encountered two burn victims who had to jump out of their second-story window to escape further injury.
“They had no choice but to jump out,” she recalled.
“When [one victim] jumped out of her house her nightgown had ripped off and so she didn’t have any clothing . It was still pouring rain. I knew she was probably going into shock. So the only choice that I had was to give her my clothes”
“You literally gave her the clothes off your own back? Daut asked.
“I did,” Juarez said.
The woman was unable to walk. Juarez carried her nearly a quarter-mile, through the mud, to an open field where she could be airlifted out.
“She kept telling me how much pain she was in, and I thought it was from her burns. I didn’t realize she had broken bones,” Juarez said.
Exhausted, muddy and wet, Juarez and her crew worked tirelessly through the night searching houses for victims.
Once the sun came up, they could see the true scope of the devastation and knew that their work had only just begun
Hundreds of residents were stranded and needed to get out. The path to safety was completely shut off, however, with debris flows on either side.
“We had no escape route, we couldn’t get people out and we couldn’t get any resources in. So for the first 24 hours, we ended up flying any evacuees out by helicopter and then hoisted patients and victims out by helicopter,” Juarez said.
And while Juarez shies away from the label “hero” the many people she brought to safety would beg to differ.
“I was just doing the job that I showed up to do that day,” she said, humbly.
Juarez was quick to credit all the first-responders, especially from her own fire house — colleagues like Ben Hauser and Andy Rupp — who were the first to hear the call for help by a 14-year-old swept out of her house and trapped in a debris field.
And even though the stunning views and vistas in Montecito remain, the scars on the community may never be erased.
Looking at the debris remaining behind, Daut says, “this looks like a war zone.”
“It is a war zone,” Juarez said.
Daut asked Juarez if she thinks Montecito will ever be the same.
“Someday,” she says, “not anytime soon. I think that a lot of people will stay but it was pretty traumatizing for everyone.”