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Montecito victims mourned as toll rises to 20

Michael Livingston and Alene Tchekmedyian, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

MONTECITO, Calif. -- Soon after the sun set over Santa Barbara, Ann Hagan grabbed a marker and wrote a short message to the 20 strangers who died in the devastating Montecito mudslides.

"In our hearts," she wrote before signing her name on a whiteboard put up at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse.

Hagan was one of thousands of people who huddled at the courthouse late Sunday evening to take part in a candlelight vigil.

They came to pay tribute to the young and old -- among them mothers, fathers, grandparents, small children -- who did not survive when rainwater poured down fire-ravaged slopes and unleashed a deluge of debris into their neighborhoods.

"This is my home too," said Hagan, 66, of Goleta. "Those people were a part of my community, a part of my family."

As Supervisor Das Williams read out each victim's name, some in the crowd wept. Others embraced. Many closed their eyes and bowed their heads, their faces illuminated by flickering candles.

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"This is a healing experience for everyone here," said Jennifer Adame, 44, of Santa Barbara. "Everyone feels frightened by the tragedies in the past two months."

As the community struggled to cope with the tremendous loss, authorities said Sunday that they had transitioned from search and rescue to search and recovery. For days, they had scoured the devastation for signs of life. Now hope dwindled of finding more survivors in the muck.

"This decision was not made lightly," Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told reporters Sunday afternoon.

Earlier in the day, authorities had announced that the death toll had climbed to 20. Searchers had found the body of the latest victim: 30-year-old Pinit Sutthithepa, whose 6-year-old son, Peerawat, was also killed. At least four other people, including Sutthithepa's 2-year-old daughter, Lydia, still are unaccounted for.

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