La Conchita and the Indomitable 82-Year Old

The son came home some days ago with news that an hour or so earlier a mud slide had buried some twenty homes in La Conchita, the tiny beach community about five miles down the road from the somewhat larger beach community of Carpinteria (“Carp” to locals) where I live. At that time there was one confirmed death and a dozen or so people known to be missing, and rescuers were working to try to recover survivors.

I know people who live in La Conchita; everyone in Carp does. There was another big slide there back in 1995, and property values for homes near the slide plummeted. A friend of my daughter’s lived in one of those houses, and I took Julia to a birthday party at his house a few years ago, and talked with his parents about the financial difficulty the situation had put them in. This was several years after the slide, and some of the homes that had been damaged were still in bad shape, their owners and the banks who held the mortgages unwilling to put money into a property that was essentially worthless, given the risk of a big rain bringing a mountain of mud down upon it.

My daughter’s friend’s family eventually walked away from that house, defaulting on their loan. Eventually, though, they were able to get some help from relatives in securing a loan to buy another house just a few blocks away from us here in Carp. In looking at a local news stations’ map of where yesterday’s slide went, I think that was one of the smartest things they ever did. I don’t think their old house is there anymore.

An outsider, someone for whom La Conchita isn’t actually “here,” or even “there,” but is “way over there,” might be inclined to observe that the people in the path of that mudslide should have known better, that they’re somehow undeserving of sympathy. A similar sort of moral distance allows people like Michael Williams to observe of the tsunami that it merely doubled the global death toll for a single day.

The local always looms larger than the global. I’ve recently begun doing some rides with my daughter, as a way to help her get in shape for an upcoming school backpacking trip. And so we were out biking on the last day of the year, enjoying a brief break in the rain we’d been having (and continue to have). And because we were going kind of slow, I was sightseeing more than I usually would, and on a fairly isolated stretch of Casitas Pass Road I happened to glance down a driveway, to where there’s a concrete crossing over Carpinteria Creek.

And there was a car in the middle of the creek.

Normally the crossing only has a few inches of water flowing over it, and the people who live in the farms on the far side can drive over and back with no problem. But at this point, with all the rain we’d been having, there was easily three feet of fast-moving water. The car had been pushed sideways off the crossing, such that its back end was down in the deeper water on the downstream side, with the front of the car facing upstream, sticking up out of the creek with water rushing by on either side.

And I thought, huh. That’s something you don’t see every day. Someone must have gotten stuck trying to cross, and had to abandon his car there. And since I wasn’t pushing myself hard, just having a leisurely ride with Julia, I thought I’d stop and take a look. So I leaned my bike against a fencepost and walked down toward the creek.

And that’s when I realized that the car hadn’t been abandoned. A man (I judged him to be about 60 at the time, but learned later he was 82, named Lorenzo Dall’Armi ) was standing, his body half out of the open passenger-side door, looking at the water tumbling by on either side.

I shouted, “Are you okay?” Which I realize was kind of a dumb question. He obviously wasn’t injured. But there was no way for him to reach the shore on either side; he was a good 15 feet from my side of the creek, and 10 feet from the far side, and not only was the water rushing by him at about 35 miles per hour, but immediately downstream of him was a nasty-looking rapids, with lots of whitewater and boulders and foam.

He just looked back at me and shrugged, helpless. He looked embarrassed, and maybe a little scared. But mostly he just looked really, really annoyed with himself. I found out later that when I arrived he’d been stuck there for about 10 minutes, kicking himself mentally over his decision to try to cross the stream, and trying, and failing, to come up with a plan for what to do next.

I stared back at him for a few seconds, and as I was doing so, Julia walked up beside me.

“Wow,” she said.

There didn’t seem to be anything else to do, so I opened up my fanny pack and took out my cellphone. “I’m going to call 911!” I shouted at the man. I wasn’t sure he could hear me (the water was really loud), but he could see what I was doing.

A few seconds later I was talking to the 911 operator. Having worked my way through college as a police dispatcher, and later as a training coordinator for the student-run Community Service Officer program, I’m pained by the memory of how badly I described my location. I was on Casitas Pass Road, but I thought I was actually on Foothill (the name the road acquires a few miles west of there). So there were a few minutes of confusion as I attempted to describe to the operator where I was, and she told me that the cross streets I was giving her, and the number I eventually read to her off a nearby mailbox, weren’t coming up on her system.

I was somewhat the victim of Carp localism here. To anyone from Carp, I could say, “I’m right next to the Lion’s Club picnic ground, by the Forest Service station” (which I did say to her, a couple of times), and they’d know exactly where I was. But the 911 operator wasn’t from Carp.

We went back and forth like this for what seemed like a long time, but it was probably only a couple of minutes. During this time, a man in his twenties, a Latino who spoke no English, walked up beside us; apparently he’d been riding by on his own bike. The man stuck in the creek climbed back inside his car and closed the passenger-side door. The 911 operator asked me some more questions (I don’t know what kind of car it is; it’ll be the one in the middle of the creek, I wanted to say, but I stuck with my training and just answered her by saying it was a white, four-door sedan). It was hard to hear what she was saying, what with all the water noise, so I had my finger jammed in my other ear, and was having to ask her to repeat herself, and was standing there, nodding and yelling into the phone, not really paying attention to the scene in front of me.

And then the car suddenly fell back off the crossing, and became almost completely submerged, with tons of water pounding onto its hood, its windshield, its roof.

Up to that point I’d been feeling pretty calm. The situation had seemed more or less under control. Eventually I’d be able to explain where I was, the Fire Department would come, and everything would be fine. But now, suddenly, things were very much not okay. The car was under the water. The man was inside the car, which probably was rapidly filling up. He was quite possibly trapped in there, prevented from opening the doors by the force of the water rushing past.

“The car’s fallen down into the creek!” I shouted into the phone. “It’s mostly underwater, and it’s really getting pounded!”

I thrust the cellphone into Julia’s hands. “Stay on the phone with them,” I told her. “Answer their questions. Do what they say.” Without waiting for her response, I started scrambling down the bank of the creek, working my way downstream to just below where the car was.

There was no way to reach it. Oh, I could have tried jumping in upstream, and might have been able to get swept into it, if I was lucky. But I would just have bounced off it. The water was too strong.

Looking downstream, I could see that the water slowed some. If the man could get himself out of the car, he was going to be swept down through there. I’m a lifelong sailor, and a strong swimmer, but that water was nasty-looking. I needed something I could use to reach him. A stick, maybe.

The Latino guy was standing next to me, and I babbled at him in English, my 7th-grade Spanish forgotten. “A stick,” I said, gesturing. “We need a big stick!” I scrambled up the bank, and found a dead sapling that looked like it might be long enough. I broke it off, jumped back down next to the water and started stripping off branches.

A few seconds later the Latino guy jumped down next to me with his own stick. It was longer, and a bit stronger-looking.
We were both watching the car for any signs of movement. After a very long ten or fifteen seconds, the passenger door, which was slightly sheltered from the current by the angle of the car, started to open, and suddenly the man was out, being tumbled down the creek. We held our sticks out as far as we could, but they weren’t long enough; he was swept past them in an instant.

And he went under. I was thinking to myself, okay; this is the part of the reality show where the announcer cuts to the commercial, teasing viewers with the comment that for the people caught up in the events of that day, things were about to take a tragic turn for the worse. Because I was thinking to myself, very rapidly, what’s going to happen if I jump into the creek to try to help him?

I still had my bike helmet on, my shoes, and my biking gloves. I figured those would be good for a certain amount of protection. But I also knew that for me to enter the water was an extremely risky proposition, one that threatened to make the situation worse, not better. I had to make the right decision, and I had to make it fast. What I thought at that moment was, well, if he looks like he’s doing okay on his own, I shouldn’t jump in. It should very much be a last resort.

While I was thinking this, his head popped up again. The current was carrying him toward the far side of the creek, where there was an eddy of slower water, and just as I thought he was going to reach the shore, he went under again, disappearing from view.

I said to myself, the water’s slower here. I’ve got a pretty good chance of getting in, and across the creek to his vicinity, without injuring myself. And I was screwing myself up to do that, ticking down the last few seconds before making what I knew would be an irrevocable decision, when his head came up again, right next to the far shore, and he reached out and grabbed a boulder, and managed to haul himself halfway out of the water.

He lay there, face down, hugging the boulder, his chest heaving. I shouted across to him, “Are you okay?” but he either couldn’t hear or was too exhausted to respond (in retrospect, probably both).

We still couldn’t reach him, but at least he appeared to be out of immediate danger. After a few minutes he managed to crawl a little further up the bank, such that he was completely out of the water. Julia, working her way down toward our position, shouted that the Fire Department was on the way, and a few minutes later we started to hear the sound of a helicopter, followed quickly by sirens.

And I was standing there, looking at the man, and looking upstream at the little bit of his car that was still visible, thinking about what I’d tell the rescue people when they arrived, and I realized that I didn’t know for sure that the man had been alone in the car. I hadn’t seen anyone else when I’d first arrived, but I hadn’t really been looking for anyone else.

At this point the first few authorities started to arrive. I actually don’t remember who was first on the scene; over the next few minutes the near bank filled up with a large assortment of county sheriffs, firefighters, paramedics, ambulance drivers, and, surprisingly quickly, a local reporter and cameraman from the Santa Barbara TV station. I gave the first person to arrive (I think it was a sheriff) a quick summary of the situation, including the fact that I believed, but wasn’t sure, that there was no one else in the car. We tried shouting across the creek to the man to confirm that, but although he was now sitting up and looking at us, he couldn’t understand us over the sound of the creek, especially when the rescue helicopter arrived and started circling overhead.

A few minutes later, as the first authorities to arrive had moved back up the creek to the crossing to coordinate the efforts to travel around to the other side and reach the man, and the helicopter had momentarily moved off, I took advantage of the lull to cup my hands around my mouth and shout at the man as loud as I could, “Was there anybody else besides.. you in the car?” And you know, I’m kind of a quiet person normally and it was really very frustrating to want to make more noise, and be unable to do so. But he finally was able to hear me, and he shouted back, “You want to know if anyone else was in the car?” and I nodded, and he shook his head and shouted, “No.” And I pointed back at him and shouted, “Just you, right?” and he nodded back to me.

So as the influx of sheriffs and paramedics and whatnot continued, I was able to tell the next guy to come down the creek bank that I had managed to communicate with the man, and that he’d confirmed there was no one else in the car.

The in-charge-seeming guy I told this to gave me his complete, undivided attention for a few seconds. He wanted to make sure that I really had heard the man say that, and that he’d seemed rational when he said it, and that there was no possibility of confusion or misunderstanding. And I was able to assure him that I had, and he had, and there wasn’t. At which point the level of tension on our side of the creek visibly eased. People were still working hard and doing their jobs, but it became more methodical, with less running and shouting going on. So I felt good about being able to help out by letting the rescuers know that no, they didn’t need to try to figure out a way to get to the car right away.

It took a surprisingly long time for them to reach the man. They had to go around a fair distance to a bridge upstream, and then through an adjoining ranch, and eventually down a steep embankment to his location. Julia and I remained on the scene until they reached him, and began strapping him into a litter for hoisting back up and out. During that time I was interviewed by the aforementioned local cameraman and reporter, with the latter snapping a photo of Julia and me, and later writing up his account of the event in the local paper.

Small town that Carp is, it turns out that we know somebody (actually, a couple of different somebodies) who know the man, whose name is Lorenzo Dell’Armi, and after a few days we got in touch with each other, and last Sunday Julia and I had breakfast with him, along with his wife and one of his daughters, at a local breakfast place. It was great to meet him in person, and chat with him without the need to shout over rushing water. He’s a really nice guy, and I’m very happy that I was able to help him out, even if the extent of my help was mostly just punching three numbers on my cellphone and answering (ineptly) the questions the operator asked me. He paid for our breakfast, and gave us a very nice gift certificate to a local restaurant, and Julia gave him a pretty drawing that she’d made for him of some flowers.

Anyway, that story’s pretty much old news now, even in Carp, what with the events at La Conchita. But it was a big deal to me, and I’m sure I’ll always remember it. I like living in a small community. People are at their best, some ways, when they’re relating to each other as individuals, helping each other out, sharing life’s joys and troubles. You can only comprehend so much of the human dimension when a disaster strikes far away. But it becomes more real, more significant, when it happens closer to you. Or when it happens very close indeed.

JOHN CALLENDER can be reached at