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After a mudslide killed loved ones, teen gives pain a voice

Catherine Saillant, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- Lauren Cantin is fighting a case of nerves as she steps into the spotlight at the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara. In just a few moments she will launch into her second number as a contestant in "Teen Star," a local "American Idol"-like competition, singing for 2,000 people. She is hoping her night will end with a crown.

Dressed in a chic red jumpsuit, the baby-faced 15-year-old, one of four finalists, looks out into the darkened theater.

There's a knot in her chest as she thinks about her father and brother, both of whom died in the early morning hours of Jan. 9, 2018, when mudslides tore through their Montecito home. She scans the audience for a glimpse of her mother, who after the slide had been found atop a debris pile, suffering from massive gashes in her right leg and arm. Lauren pushes away memories of being buried alive for six hours.

Fifteen months after the disaster, those memories can resurface at any time, and she knows she needs to avoid the emotional black hole that opened during her trauma.

Lauren breathes deep and hits her first note, showcasing the voice that continues to be the instrument of her salvation. Singing has allowed her to move on with her life. Even if the specter of the hole never quite goes away.

It was cold and wet and musty in the hole.


Mud had been rising all around her, some of it seeping into her mouth and lungs. Somehow, a breathing pocket the size of a volleyball had formed in front of her face, but she was entombed under 4 feet of muck, invisible to anyone.

Just a few minutes earlier, Lauren had been in her bedroom, pulling on rain boots as her family prepared to flee a worsening downpour. The Thomas fire, which raged across Santa Barbara and Ventura counties in December 2017, had stripped the nearby Santa Ynez Mountains of brush, and the heavy rains prompted authorities to warn residents to be prepared to evacuate. The Cantins didn't live in a mandatory evacuation zone, but their bags were packed.

Around 3 a.m., as the rainfall rate hit half an inch per hour, Kim Cantin peeked outside the front door and noticed that the sky had an eerie yellow glow. She told her husband, Dave, who went to the door and immediately slammed it shut. "Back door now!" he shouted.

Lauren and her 17-year-old brother, Jack, were in their bedrooms when an avalanche of mud -- carrying trees 50 feet long and boulders the size of a refrigerator -- came crashing down the mountains, picking up cars and houses as it rushed forward. A river of debris slammed into the house, tearing it apart and sending Lauren, Jack, her parents and Chester, their beloved red setter, tumbling down a raging current.


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