Victims of California Mudslides Were Swept Away Weeks After Surviving Fires

LOS ANGELES — For more than two weeks last month, Josie Gower shuffled between her friends’ spare bedrooms and couches while her own home in Montecito, Calif., was under evacuation orders because of the devastating Thomas Fire. So on Monday evening, she told her adult children she was grateful to sleep safely in her own two-story home.

But just before 3 a.m., Ms. Gower, 69, and her boyfriend heard what sounded like an explosion and they rushed downstairs.

When Ms. Gower opened the back door, she was swallowed by several feet of mud that overpowered her grip on the door frame and sucked her out of the house. Her boyfriend, Norm Borgatello, was swept away and pinned by a boulder against a fence. For more than six hours, he fought to keep himself alive. “Josie! Josie!” he would shout. But he never heard from her again.

Firefighters found her body nearly a mile away Tuesday afternoon. The only way they could identify her was by her fingerprints.

Josie Gower was among the 17 killed.

The area was ravaged by the largest wildfire in California history last month, and the mudslides were a direct result of the burned ground. Without any vegetation in the way, the hills were vulnerable to falling rock and debris. Parts of the hills still puffed with smoke from those fires as the rain came down Tuesday.

James and Alice Mitchell.Credit…via Associated Press

In the past 48 hours, Mr. Gower and his sister, Breezy Haigh, have gone over and over what could have been done differently — alternating between blaming themselves and blaming county officials.

Rebecca Riskin.Credit…via Associated Press

“Nothing else is recognizable,” said Clay Weimer, the Mitchells’ son-in-law. Another home nearby had apparently slid down the hill. “The house next to them? Who knows where that house came from.”

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