California Army National Guard soldiers pulled more than 1,800 Montecito residents to safety in the days after Tuesday's disastrous mudslide, officials said.
One of those soldiers was Pvt. First Class Yessenia Mendoza, 23, a Cal State Bakersfield student who works two part-time jobs in addition to her service in the 1114th Composite Transportation Company in Bakersfield.
In an unusual move, local authorities had asked the National Guard unit to station four of its heavy all-terrain cargo trucks in Santa Barbara on Monday, Jan. 8, the day before a torrent of mud tore through Montecito.
Mendoza and seven fellow soldiers were sleeping on cots at the Earl Warren Showgrounds when they received the same early-morning alert as local residents in the 3 a.m. hour.
"We could hear them going off in all the tents," she said. "I got one myself."
Within an hour, they were driving axle-deep into the mud, over logs and boulders, plucking families who were stranded. Mendoza's truck can carry 30 people.
"We had families with their children, their dogs. So it got tight in there," she said. "You could see the relief on their faces."
But many were traumuatized to have seen homes crushed and neighbors swept away in the mud.
"They were pretty panicked. They just knew that it happened right before their eyes," Mendoza said.
At one home near railroad tracks, a woman got the soldiers' help to walk through knee-deep mud from her doorstep to a truck in the still mud-flooded street. One soldier walked ahead, she put her hands on his shoulders, and a second soldier followed her, helping her lift each leg to step forward.
Once released from disaster duty, Mendoza’s due for a rest.
"I can sleep anywhere, that's what we're trained for," she said.
More soldiers and equipment from her company soon arrived in Santa Barbara and they spent much of the first days after the disaster shuttling families from their homes to a shopping center. From there, a bus carried them to a Red Cross post where they could get shelter and other aid.