Deadly California mudslides: Survivors, first responders recall harrowing experiences

Survivors share what they saw firsthand as deadly mudslides overwhelmed people in Montecito, California.
8:37 | 01/16/18

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Transcript for Deadly California mudslides: Survivors, first responders recall harrowing experiences
You could say that montecito is the home of the American dream in the golden state. Everyone that lives here cherishes it, loves it. The most beautiful place on Earth. We had just the most amazing landscaping here. It was paradise. It was bliss. It's precisely what makes it so beautiful that makes it a dangerous place to live sometimes. I've covered earthquakes and fires and tornadoes and hurricanes. But nothing seemed to have moved and reshaped the landscape as did these mudslides. Been on for 20 years and I've never been a part of anything with the magnitude and size of this incident. It was this apocalyptic set of conditions. On the one hand you had a storm delivering a 200-year rain right on this small town of montecito. The town itself was backed up against a mountain that had been scarred by these fires. And so in a short period of time you have a wind and rainstorm. The mudslides that just erupted from the mountains, gouging hundreds of millions of tons of debris, setting off these mud flows, massive fires, and a number of deaths. The only words I can really think of to describe what it looked like was it looked like a World War I battlefield. We need you to get out here as soon as possible. That fire is right there. What the firefighters did is basically let the Thomas fire burn everything around Santa Barbara and montecito in the hopes of saving the town itself. Scorching that hillside, burning the trees, the shrubs. All the vegetation. So now you have basically a naked hill that has nothing to hold all that dirt and mud in place. We'll see rainfall rates between 1/2 and 1 inch per hour. After it accumulates for a while, that pounding pressure of the rain could cause some of these hillsides to slide. There was obviously an awareness that there was potential for mudslides. They had prepositions fire and rescue teams before the rain event. They had also issued mandatory evacuations and some voluntary evacuations. We should have evacuated. But there's a question as to if I was even in a voluntary evacuation point. Because it was east of my house. Reporter: Rain is something that you can foresee. And you know, maybe we'll take the temperature of this kind of storm and see how it goes. That turned out to be a fatal decision for so many people. The rain basically came at the worst of times. It started about 2:00 to 3:00 A.M. And by 4:00 A.M. These creek beds were just filled with debris, Boulders, 30-foot logs. People thought they'd just sleep through this rainstorm. And suddenly this sound started increasing. The flash flood's right there! Get out of here! Go! I was 2 1/2 blocks away, and I heard one rumble, and I knew that was it. Close the door! I had to do everything I could to make it back alive. Wake dad up. Help try to save my parents. Wake dad up! Wake up! It was loud and mean. And the scariest roar you ever heard. Trees slamming down. It was too late for too many families. Literally people had rivers of debris inside their houses by the time they realized that there even was a mudslide. It's up to the counter over there. Reporter: And my mom, dad, and I were right there watching the mud flow out the back door. Every second wondering what was going to happen. If the walls were going to cave in. But that little hallway protected us. Those are our hand prints hanging on. We pray for everyone here. We had to survive because there wasn't anybody on this Earth that could come help us. Trying to make access into the community of montecito, there was no way in. Large trees had fallen over roads. Power lines, power poles had all fallen down in the roads. A firefighter kind of knew the area really well and suggested we try and just try some side roads and get, in and it worked. Parked the engine right here, we got our flashlights out and started looking and shining into this area. Large powerful flashlights. And that was the moment when we realized the devastation. The mud just swept the homes off the foundations. In other cases houses just Boulders. That was a car now it's -- I don't know if it's a telephone pole or a tree is lying on top of it. But there's almost nothing left of this mangled metal. Everything that could be disfigured, mangled, or crushed was. Lots of obstacles and challenges for rescue personnel to get to homes, let alone to get people out of them. For the first couple of hours even rescue crews, until they got helicopters up, had no idea how vast the scope of this disaster was. Our priority was rescuing these people as fast as possible. We knew the more time went by the weaker people would be, the colder they would be, and the chance of survival was decrease decreasing. I want you to hear that. That's a gas pipe that ruptured. And what's astonishing is that it's still going. It literally sounded like jets were taking off. We were really listening for victims and people calling for help. It was very hard to hear over the gas lines at that time. Power tools, chainsaws, buzz cutters, anything that could create a spark could also set them all on fire. So they had to basically use their hands or pickaxes just to try to get people out of the debris. It was probably about 6:30 in the morning. The sun had come up. We were doing a more thorough sweep. Someone heard a grunt. We waited and heard another kind of a grunt. Almost like a gasp. Like a last breath. So we started digging. We worked so hard. We weren't hearing any grunts anymore. And everyone's pulling these branches back just to get access. Had a child -- oh, god. What an exhilarating feeling. All of us used all of our strength to pull these branches off, and it took two, three people just to pull her out of the mud. It was like she was being birthed from the Earth. Completely covered in mud. Limp. We weren't sure if she was alive yet. I immediately grabbed her. I cleared her mouth, cleared her nostrils, and she gave a breath. We all needed that. It was a adrenaline boost to continue. It's the most significant rescue of my life. It's incredible that a human was able to survive any of that. As we stand here with people who have lost loved ones -- It's entirely likely that a lot of the people who lost homes and certainly the families of victims may never move back. We know a lot of these people were all connected. We've lost people we know. This puts everything into priority in perspective. You think you haze things of value, but at the end of the day there's very little. We're all in this together, and we'll recover.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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