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Montecito mudslides: A story of luck, loss and narrow escapes

Geoff Gray and his partner Dina Landi stand outside their home, which survived the Montecito mudslides.
Geoff Gray and his partner Dina Landi stand outside their home, which survived the Montecito mudslides.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

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When Geoff Gray and his partner Dina Landi got word their Montecito home was in a mandatory evacuation zone due to a coming storm last week, they figured they’d go stay at a friend’s house. But the friend’s two kids were sick with the flu. 

So they took up another friend’s offer to stay in her guesthouse. The decision would lead them on a journey that would test their resilience and break their hearts.

“I’m feeling quite nervous to go back and see it,” says Landi, as she and Gray head toward the guesthouse for the first time since fleeing it.

Landi, 38, is a realtor who sells homes in Montecito. Gray, 39, has a company that tests new products for shoe manufacturers. They moved to Montecito from Santa Barbara two years ago.

As they make their way in a car up Hot Springs Road past Montecito Country Club, everything looks normal. But soon Gray and Landi are in the middle of tons of mud and car-size boulders that now sit silent and motionless alongside San Ysidro Creek.

 “This is the mudslide that almost killed us,” Gray says.

Geoff Gray points down the road to a guest cottage where he and his wife narrowly escaped the deadly mud and debris flows that followed the first major storm of the season.
Geoff Gray points down the road to a guest cottage where he and his wife narrowly escaped the deadly mud and debris flows that followed the first major storm of the season.
Frank Stoltze

He recalls how the night started quietly. He’d worked out at the gym and gone to dinner with Landi and friends. They went to bed in the guesthouse around 10 p.m.

“Pretty normal bedtime, pretty normal night,” he says.

During the night, Gray kept hearing his phone buzz with alerts. He didn’t pay much attention to them.

“Frankly, we had been getting so many of them over the past month from the fire that we just thought they were normal updates, not anything meaningful.”

Then, around 3:45 a.m., the couple were awoken by a bright orange light in the window. He was pretty sure what it was.

“Because we’ve had all these fires lately, my first thought was ‘oh my god, there’s a fire that’s broken out,” he says.

As it turned out, a mudslide had begun its descent, and had ruptured a gas line causing an explosion that lit up the night sky.

He rushed to open the front door, and saw the river of mud bearing down on them.

“I was like ‘babe, our cars are gone, we can’t get out of here.”

The mud and debris crashed through the wall and began to fill the room.

Recalling an article he'd read just a few days earlier about how those who survived Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico were the people who immediately moved to high ground, Gray jumped onto the kitchen counter and tried to smash out the skylight.

“Action movies make kicking out skylights a lot easier than it really is,” he says. “It was impossible.”

He broke the kitchen window instead. Luckily, the force of the mudslide had wedged a car against the guesthouse, which meant they could use it to climb out and onto the roof.

They phoned 911. But they had to wait for hours in the cold, dark rain for rescuers to arrive. Landi began shivering badly. To warm her up, Gray resorted to urinating into a water bottle and using that as a form of heat.

“It’s disgusting but at that point, you figure you do what you can to survive.”

Finally, a helicopter arrived.

As she was hoisted away in a rescue basket, Landi recalls the terrible feeling she had seeing Gray left behind.

“I wanted to throw up," Landi says.

Gray already was helping one of his hosts, Ken Grand, who was stuck up in a tree in boxer shorts and a tee shirt. He was hypothermic with purple lips and had a broken leg, says Gray.

It took all of Gray’s strength to help him down from the tree and drag him out through the thick mud to a nearby patio.

“It wasn’t easy,” says Gray, a former physical therapist who works out regularly. “You try to keep your body healthy and fit,” he says. “You never know when you’re going to need it.”

Gray then helped Grand’s 25-year-old step daughter, who was stranded in the main house.

It was a miraculous escape, says Landi. “I personally feel like there was some divine intervention that we survived.”

But one person was still missing.

Rebecca Riskin, the owner of the property who had so graciously offered the guesthouse, was last seen by her husband Ken Grand floating away in the mud. Authorities announced Wednesday afternoon that rescuers had found her body nearly two miles away.

The loss hit Landi hard. They were business partners in a leading local real estate firm.

“She was one of my closest and dearest friends,” Landi says. “She was my rock.”

The whole reason they were at the guest house in the first place was due to an act of kindness by Riskin. They made it out alive.  She didn’t.

“That’s the hardest part of the story for us,” says Landi. “There’s that guilt that we couldn’t save Rebecca.”

Despite their traumatic experience, Landi and Gray say Montecito will remain their home. They say everything that made it a great place to live is still there, including the spirit of Riskin.

The community just needs time to recover, as do they, says Gray.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Geoff Gray’s name. He also does not have a daughter. The story also removed an incorrect reference to Dina Landi’s first job.