More than 50 people on Wednesday visited the First Presbyterian Church, which transformed to a Family Assistance Center, to ask authorities if their missing family members were found dead or alive.
A team of county counselors, chaplains, and sheriff’s personnel delivered bad news to those who lost loved ones. The space was made as comfortable as possible: A fire burned in the fireplace, slices of cake and a bowl of tangerines sat on card tables, and private rooms were available for people to sit and talk. Some stayed for hours.
“We’ve been packed,” said Sheriff’s Lieutenant Butch Arnoldi. As of Wednesday evening, 17 people were confirmed dead. Arnoldi called it nothing short of a miracle that every single one had been identified through fingerprints, tattoos, scar marks, or gold teeth fillings.
“It is a chaotic situation,” he explained. “These people came in stripped. There was no identification on them.” Authorities have thus far withheld their identities. Arnoldi said all were bona fide Montecito residents. Most were found along the Olive Mill Road corridor, one swept away to a Highway 101 onramp and another all the way to Miramar Beach.
Among the dead and missing include two families of five, he said. One family has one member still missing and another has two. Relatives of both were en route to the church.
The family of well-known realtor Rebecca Riskin announced she was among the fatal victims. “The confirmation of her loss is incredibly devastating to her friends, family, and our community. Per her wishes, we intend to carry out her life’s work with the same strength, grace and elegance that wholly defined Rebecca,” the family said in a statement. “Rebecca was an exceptional woman, and her legacy will continue to live on and thrive through her children, Robert and Julia, her husband Ken Grand, and her namesake firm, Riskin Partners.”
Rescuers from multiple counties have been working for more than 40 hours to find people stuck in the debris, dead or alive. Many areas have been difficult to access, and searchers have reportedly not gone north of Highway 192, which was under mandatory evacuation orders on Sunday. Residents trying to get back into their houses have been turned away at multiple points on the outskirts of the exclusion zone, stretching from Olive Mill Road to Sheffield Drive.
Arnoldi indicated that the underground garage at the severely beaten Montecito Inn, located on the corner of Olive Mill and Coast Village roads, could be the location of multiple buried bodies. In the end, Arnoldi said the death toll could be as many as 30 people.