Emotional Rescues : Lifesavers: Crews pluck people from Ventura River and flooded homes.
Rain beat down on firefighters clustered on the bridge over the Ventura River on Tuesday as they scanned the swollen, muddy water below for signs of life.
Meanwhile, rescue helicopters struggled over the East Main Street span in pelting rain and strong winds. More than once, heavy fog forced them to land and wait for an easing of the torrent.
“This is tough work,” said Ventura Fire Capt. Mike Maher. “But a lot of lives are at stake out there.”
As hard rain pummeled much of Ventura County, one unidentified person was found dead in the Ventura River and more than a dozen other people and several dogs were rescued from the swirling waters.
At least 20 other people were rescued from flooded homes in Oak View and near Santa Paula. Reports of additional rescues continued to filter in late into the afternoon.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Bob Johnston began tracking the rescues late Tuesday morning.
“I’ve been trying to get an accurate count,” he said. “But to be honest, when you’ve got so many agencies working under these kinds of time constraints, you don’t always get the most accurate information.”
From a pre-dawn rescue until the rain subsided and darkness fell, it was a long, wet day for rescuers and flood victims alike.
The perilous day got off to an early start when four homeless people were spotted near the East Main Street Bridge in Ventura about 6:30 a.m. by Ventura firefighters patrolling the area.
The group, which made camp at the river-bottom homeless enclave nearby, had heard a warning to move to higher ground broadcast from a helicopter the night before but were reluctant to leave.
“We were watching pretty close, but we didn’t think the water would come up so quick,” said Curtis Reese, 38. “I’m glad we got out of there when we did.”
Just before dawn, firefighters lowered a ladder over the side of the bridge, urging the foursome to climb to safety.
But the rescue was not easy. The victims were determined to save their three dogs and the few belongings they had salvaged from the current that had carried their tents to the ocean.
As the water reached his thighs, Rick Wells, 40, tried to squeeze his black dog, Attitude, into a garbage pail to hoist him up the ladder.
When the slippery pail got away from him, Wells tucked the large black dog under his arm and, slowly and clumsily, scaled the ladder.
“Everything else got away, so I knew I wasn’t going to leave Attitude behind, no question about it,” Wells said. “Now it’s just me and the dog.”
Wells’ friend and fellow evacuee, who identified herself only as Tammy, said that the last time major rains flooded the area, she got out early. This time, she said, she stayed a little too long.
“I never wanted to get rescued,” she said. “It’s embarrassing.”
As he pulled himself up the shaky metal ladder, Jeff Miller, 44, managed to hang onto a black plastic suitcase and a walking stick.
“It was a pretty scary thing, to see the waters coming at us so fast,” Miller said after reaching safe ground. “I’m glad we made it.”
Also caught unaware were a young couple and their child, who were stranded while driving near the Ventura Beach R.V. Resort, which had been evacuated the day before. Firefighters quickly pulled the trio from their flooded car and brought them to safety.
Relentless rain continued to pound the area through the morning, transforming the docile and at times nonexistent Ventura River into a swirling, angry mass.
The river swept up everything in its path, including tree trunks, branches, debris and a homeless man who clung to a tree top until Jim Davis, a Ventura firefighter clad in a wet suit, swam to his rescue.
“I’ve done this many times as practice, but this was my first time doing the real thing,” Davis said.
The force of the current was so strong it ripped off the homeless man’s pants and shoes, leaving him naked but for a blue shirt and tan socks.
The man, who was not identified by name, was taken to Ventura County Medical Center and treated for hypothermia, Maher said.
Shortly after that rescue, firefighters rushed to a tiny plot of dry land upstream, where two of the unidentified homeless man’s friends were airlifted to safety. One was taken to Ventura County Medical Center and treated for hypothermia, Maher said.
Then, just before noon, two women and their dog were discovered in a tiny building surrounded by rising water at Emma Wood Group Camp.
Jan Clover, 43, of Oxnard and Mary White, 51, of Ventura, were plucked from the flooded building by helicopter.
Clover was arrested shortly after her rescue because she had gone into the flooded area against police orders to try and rescue White, said Lt. Steve Bowman of the Ventura Police Department.
“On a day like this, the last thing we need is to have people going in where they’re not supposed to,” Bowman said. “I’m glad we were able to get them out safely.”
As the day progressed, however, some residents couldn’t resist taking part in the rescue effort.
Craig Koerner, the veterinarian for the Ventura County Department of Animal Regulation, was dispatched by his boss to rescue a dog named Bear stranded in the middle of the Ventura River.
The American Humane Assn. donated about $750 to pay for a helicopter to pick up the pooch and a stranded calico cat nearby.
“It wasn’t nearly as dramatic as it seems,” said Koerner, who often treats the pets of homeless people. “It was nice to save a couple of creatures.”
In a rural neighborhood near Santa Paula, Ventura resident Richard Rosales donned a wet suit and floated on his surfboard to his parents’ flooded home on Faulkner Road.
Rosales helped his mother wade to the only two-story home in the neighborhood, where they waited until helicopters arrived to fly them and 17 other residents to safety.
“The water was waist-deep,” Rosales said. “I’ve seen this kind of stuff on TV, but never here.”
Contributing to Ventura County flood coverage were staff writers Fred Alvarez, Dwayne Bray, Miguel Bustillo, Sara Catania, Julie Fields, Christina Lima, Carlos V. Lozano, Mary F. Pols, Mack Reed, Constance Sommer and Kenneth R. Weiss. Correspondents Maia Davis, Paul Elias, Scott Hadly, Jeff McDonald, J. E. Mitchell, Matthew Mosk, Catherine Saillant, Ira E. Stoll and Tracy Wilson also contributed.