A donation box for the Benitez family sits on the counter at Joyeria Latina Americana, a jewelry store on Milpas Street.

Photo: Kelsey Brugger

A donation box for the Benitez family sits on the counter at Joyeria Latina Americana, a jewelry store on Milpas Street.

Toddler Doing Well After Flood Ordeal

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The 2-year-old whom a firefighter pulled up from thick debris on January 9 is recovering, according to multiple sources. His name is Ian Benitez. He was originally thought to be a girl because he has long hair. Stripped of all clothing and caked in mud, the 2-year-old was hurled nearly three-quarters of a mile in the deadly storm.

Dispatched on Engine 13 to Olive Mill Road early Tuesday morning, Firefighter Dustin Mckibben recalled it was roaring. Boulders barreled down the hill, wiping out roads. The gas line ruptured. Montecito resident Berkeley “Augie” Johnson showed them a long driveway that had several homes on it. (Johnson’s story is here.) “He was of great help,” Mckibben said.

Together they looked for one last family — a woman and two boys — on the block. But as it turned out, their search led them through obliterated backyards to the faint sound of a child crying. Mckibben said he homed in on the soft noise. Beneath a huge pile of debris buildup, he managed to find a hole directly down to the face of the child, he said. The smallest chunk of mud could have clogged the opening. He described the event as “incredible.” Destiny, religion — whatever you believe — Mckibben said, Ian Benitez was meant to do a lot of good work in his life.

Ian’s rescue is nothing short of miraculous. In the past week, he joined his father, Victor, in the hospital, according to those who visited him. Victor Benitez is expected to survive, but he is in bad shape. His face is badly bruised. He has not wanted to let Ian go, friends say. Ian has a cast from the hip down on one side. Victor’s older son, Jonathan, 10, a 4th grader in teacher Omar Espinoza’s class at Cleveland Elementary, was found dead. A banner with Jonathan's photo is on display at the school. His mother, Faviola Benitez Calderon, is still missing.

The family lived with Victor’s brother, Antonio, and the two had started a landscaping company. Antonio is also slowly recovering in the hospital. His wife, 27-year-old Marilyn Ramos, and daughter, Kailley, who was 3, were both found dead. Before he went to work with his brother, Antonio worked at Vons in Montecito for four years. Coworkers said Antonio would bend over backward to do anything he could for others. He was devastated upon hearing the news that his wife and young daughter did not make it. The Benitez family lived and worked with Martin Cabrera-Munoz, who also lost his life in the storm. Cabrera-Munoz’s sister, Diana, described them all as “really great buds.”

The Benitez family had rented a house on East Valley Road, and they were good friends with the Taylor-Sutthithepa family, who were also devastated by the storm. When the survivors have seen each other in the hospital this week, friends relayed, they embraced as though they were one big family.

Victor and Antonio worked for Robin Lewis for seven years, and they worked for about 10 families in her Goleta neighborhood. In the summer months, she said, Victor brought Jonathan to work. Faviola worked as a housekeeper. “They are extremely hard working,” she said. “We really love and respect them.” Lewis started a GoFundMe webpage to raise money for the surviving family members.

Lorena Penaloza, whose family owns Joyeria Latina Americana, also launched a GoFundMe page for recovery expenses. She said she worked with Faviola's sister, Elena, for a number of years. She described the family as very private people, and incredibly hardworking.

Penaloza also set up a donation box at the Milpas Street jewelry store. She has received 20 to 30 calls a day, she said, and she will share information about their progress when she can.

In addition, Adelente Charter School is collecting donations in manila envelopes for the Benitez family. A distant relative, Maria, was active in the school's Parent Teacher Student Organization for many years.

Another GoFundMe site for the Benitez family has been set up by Lori Lieberman, who'd known them for three years. She is now among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Montecito Water District and Southern California Edison.