MONTECITO, Calif. -- Rescue crews continued to search for survivors amid the mud and wreckage of Montecito's massive debris field on Thursday, but acknowledged that the window to save lives is rapidly closing.
At least eight people remain unaccounted for following Tuesday's massive mud flow, which killed at least 17 people and obliterated scores of homes.
First responders have searched approximately 75 percent of the debris field left by a torrent of boulders, detritus and muck, according to Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown.
"It is a massive operation that we have underway, still in the search and rescue mode, as mentioned, but as we transition and will transition to a recovery mode, we realize that this is going to be a long and difficult journey for all of us and for our community," he said.
Emergency crews successfully rescued three people Wednesday, using helicopters to reach residents trapped in canyon areas that were rendered inaccessible by mud, downed power lines and fallen trees.
"We continue to work down a list of missing people and their addresses and do a much more focused search of that area," Montecito Fire District Deputy Chief Kevin Taylor said during a news briefing Wednesday.
Much of the focus of Thursday's search will be on areas where rescue crews had yet to reach, said Amber Anderson, a public information officer for the multi-agency response team handling the disaster. Secondary searches also will be conducted in areas that emergency crews were able to access earlier in the week.
Hundreds of people who were trapped but not injured in the slides, such as those stranded in Romero Canyon, were taken to safety on Wednesday, she said.
As of Thursday morning, eight people remained missing, according to Mike Eliason, public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. Anderson could not say whether those eight people were all believed to be in areas rescue crews had yet to reach.
None of the dead has been formally identified, but the names of some of those killed and missing in the mudslides have begun to trickle out.
In some cases, the deluge seemed to split families as well as homes.
Fabiola Benitez, 28, was swept away along with her husband and two children when her house was leveled during Tuesday's deluge, according to Lori Lieberman, a family friend. Benitez's husband and older son were rescued and hospitalized in stable condition, according to Lieberman, who said Benitez and her 9-year-old son remain missing and are feared dead.
Roy Rohter, the founder of St. Augustine Academy in Ventura, was swept from his home alongside his wife on Tuesday morning, school officials said. Rohter did not survive, but his wife was rescued and said to be in stable condition, the college said in a statement earlier this week.
Rebecca Riskin, a Montecito real estate agent, also was identified as one of those killed, according to a statement issued by her firm. She is survived by her husband and two children, the statement said.
The surge destroyed or damaged hundreds of buildings in Montecito and washed out a 30-mile stretch of the 101 Freeway. The roadway will remain closed until at least Monday from Highway 150 to Milpas Street in Santa Barbara as crews work around the clock to clear the area of mud, cars and other debris. On the stretch of the freeway by the Montecito Inn, several feet of mud and rubble collected in the road.
"It looks like a swamp -- there's so much stuff down there," said Jose Gonzalez, a road crew worker stationed by a bridge over the 101. "Some of the locals think there's probably bodies in there. I hope not."
Nearly 60 single-family residences were destroyed in Montecito, and 446 others sustained damage, according to an update published Wednesday night by the multi-agency team responding to the devastation. An additional 1,500 homes remain threatened.
The debris field also cut off gas, electricity and water to much of the area. A boil water notice remains in effect for the Montecito Water District, officials said, and rescue personnel are concerned that those who survived the slide but remain trapped soon could run dangerously low on supplies.
"A majority of Montecito and that whole area is in the Stone Age right now," Eliason said Wednesday. "We're actively pursuing trying to get in there as quick as we can to get those people to safety."
Despite the devastation, some of Wednesday's searches resulted in happy endings.
Sally Mobraaten, 56, arrived at an evacuation center at Santa Barbara City College on Monday night desperately looking for her missing 86-year-old mother. She thought her mother had been evacuated but could not find her.
Mobraaten decided to head toward a Vons on Coast Village Road where the National Guard had been dropping people off. Along the way, she called hotels in Santa Barbara to see whether her mother was there.
She had no luck, until she spotted an elderly woman wearing a red rain coat and a white hat.
"That's my mother!" she shouted.
With the engine of her SUV still running, Mobraaten jumped out, ran to her mother and gave her a kiss.
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