This one is the family portrait that was on the front page of the Los Angeles Times and used broadly. It was taken only weeks before the tragedy AND stunningly, it was in the very location we were pulled to to search for Jack. The dogs had alerted us there.
ABOUT THE STORY
After rearranging us, asking us to smile, and taking many camera clicks, she had what she needed…It was a lovely afternoon. I felt happy and relieved that we had a set of new family pictures. Time was short, since Jack would be off to college in a couple of years. Lauren was transforming from our adorable, chatty girl, into a beautiful and kind woman. Dave and I felt fortunate that we were not showing too much gray, and were still in love.
My friend led us into an open space, looking for the perfect location. After ten minutes, she stopped. We stood next to a grouping of uneven boulders, on which she wanted us to sit. Next, she walked us toward a downed tree trunk, where she assembled us for another group shot.
When I first met Dave at work, I was not only taken by his charismatic smile, but I was also impressed with his can-do attitude and work ethic. I came to learn that, like me, he had started his first job at a young age. Dave’s first job was delivering newspapers in Portsmouth, RI on his bicycle. Come winter, his dad would drive Dave and his brother around in the car, stopping at every other house so that Dave could run out and place the newspaper near each customer’s front door. One customer, Dave told me, wanted his paper placed on the kitchen table, and Dave would quietly enter and oblige the request.
What I loved most about my husband was his kind heart and his smile that lit up the room.
Once married and with a family of his own, Dave embraced fatherhood and was a loyal, loving husband. He became the local Cub Scout leader and Boy Scout Scoutmaster, while juggling an intense work schedule as a busy medical device executive. He’d get a corsage for Lauren and wear a tie matching the color of her dress for the elementary school “Daddy-Daughter dance.” We’d also make time for date nights. I knew I was lucky. What I loved most about my husband was his kind heart and his smile that lit up the room. Being an excellent cook was a delightful perk, as was his attentive ear when I needed to talk.
Dave, scoutmaster, and dad….in Jack’s Eagle Scout Ceremony.
Image of Jack in his junior high school year. This school picture was taken months before he was killed. (and in his favorite color orange t-shirt)
Jack led a team to refurbish over 8 backboards with hoops, nets and they painted the posts at the local, public elementary school. The 5th graders were so appreciative and wrote him notes saying “thank you for making my school pretty again.”
When Jack was looking for a service opportunity with his Teens on the Scene community service group, he went to this school one day with his team to repair the soccer nets. While there, he noticed that the recess area had eight very dilapidated basketball hoops and nets. The backboards were faded white, with rust covering them.
A few months later, when Jack was looking for a meaningful Eagle Scout project, a project designed to benefit the community in some way, he approached the principal to repair the basketball area. Jack chose an ambitious and extensive Eagle Scout project. Some projects take up to 100 hours of effort, but this one would take more like 250 hours. Jack led a Scout team and their parents over Easter weekend as they painted and repaired the basketball recess area…A young boy who came to the school to play over the week- end walked up to Jack. “Thank you for making my school beautiful again,” the child said, with a big grin on his face.
The 5th-grade teachers invited Jack to the school so the students could thank him personally. I recall picking him up early from middle school as he quickly changed into his Scout uniform, along with his sash filled with the merit badges he had earned. In the classroom, the kids sat at their desks, and others sat on the floor, asking Jack questions. They wanted to know what was his favorite merit badge to earn. “Scuba diving,” Jack replied. He liked that he now could scuba dive with his dad, and he looked forward to those adventures.
They wanted to know what was his favorite merit badge to earn. “Scuba diving,” Jack replied.
Jack had grown in self-confidence and self-assuredness about who he was and who he wanted to be. Now, I was watching Lauren do the same.
Jack & Lauren
Lauren and Jack, weeks before the tragedy, and when Lauren found out she was accepted into the same middle school as Jack. They were very close.
School was a sanctuary and happy place for Lauren. She went to the independent Santa Barbara Middle School, which had a unique outdoor education program, excellent academics, and a strong inclusive community. Dave and I had fallen in love with the school, not only due to the outdoor program in which each year the students and teachers went on three week-long to 10-day mountain bike trips, camping and exploring; but also because of the sense of kind community it fostered at the school. While there, Jack had grown in self-confidence and self-assuredness about who he was and who he wanted to be. Now, I was watching Lauren do the same.
The Thomas Fire
Then the largest wildfire in California history was roaring from Ventura toward Montecito.
We had repeated evacuations. When we’d return—we had layers of ash on the house, driveway, and backyard. Dave bought a special vacuum to clean up the ash. During one of the evacuations, while at my friend’s house forty miles away – we played a fun game of Jenga Giant. Dave enjoyed the game and hugging his baby girl.
The Thomas Fire continued to burn through nearby Ventura County. Taking a break from packing his luggage, Dave came to speak with me in the dining room. As we both stood there looking out at the mountains through our bay window, Dave said, “Kim, you’ll be fine; the likelihood of the fire coming all the way across the mountains and into Montecito is improbable. But if it does, just evacuate to Karen’s.” My college friend lived in Thousand Oaks, far enough away that we’d be safe from the fire. Although it was a remote possibility, I collected key items and papers, and placed them in a box to take with me in the event of an evacuation.
The fire became the largest wildfire in California history, burning over 280,000 acres. It was all we heard about and saw on the news for days. We were devastated to learn that a Ventura firefighter lost his life defending homes, and tragically left behind a pregnant wife and toddler. Ever a prepared scout, Dave asked us to sign up to receive emergency alerts that would provide us with up-to-the-minute evacuation warnings. These alerts blasted out from our cell phones in an unsettling manner. As our phones rang with an ear-piercing, shrill blast, like an Amber alert, we’d freeze, stopping what we were doing to read the message.
My baby had been buried alive, totally alone, entombed. My mind wanted to shut out the horror she’d endured. She told me that during the chaos, she felt like the rest of the family had gotten out and left her. That broke my heart. Never in a million years would we have done that, if any of us could have moved from our location to help her. With the slide’s power and chaos, none of us had the ability to help each other. We were separated in our home by the roaring force of the slide that came down the mountain like an avalanche. It flowed like powerful thick wet cement, and rendered each of us helpless.”
The first time I heard 14-year-old Lauren Cantin, she was fighting for her life. It was January 9, 2018; I was on duty as a Firefighter Paramedic with the Montecito Fire Department. The historic Thomas Fire had burned through Montecito, a small seaside town, a month before, and left
multiple feet of ash and hydrophobic dirt sitting precariously on the mountainside. An “atmospheric river” rainstorm event caused the material to break loose, resulting in a devastating debris flow.
It was dark and bitterly cold. The rain continued to come down; everywhere I turned, there was a challenging hazard to be navigated. A massive mudslide had wiped out parts of Montecito, and I was one of many on a rescue mission. As I climbed off a debris pile, my co-worker Ben asked if heard someone calling for help. I could not, due to a deafening nearbybroken natural gas main. So, I stopped to listen more closely, and I heard a very faint scream for help. — Andy, Firefighter Rescuer
Chester, our beloved Irish Setter. Only 7 when he was washed away. He was 90lbs and found crushed six feet up a tree… “The dark, thick slime seeped in under our doors. The muddy water came up through the bottom of our front walls and front doors. I looked down at Chester, lying on the floor near my feet. I told him, “Let’s go!” But he tilted his head and looked up at me hauntingly as he lay on the carpet. Chester did not move. He seemed to know there was no escape. I heard a horrifying, unfamiliar noise that sounded as if I were standing under the walkway of Niagara Falls. It sounded like the roar of an oncoming train, mere inches away.
They did not say Jack had perished. I recall a search team member coming to my hospital room to ask me where Jack was when the slide happened. He wondered if he had run outside, or if he was in his bedroom. I recalled Jack running to his room to get dressed to leave. I assumed he had been in his room when the slide hit the house. With this information, I heard that they used excavators to dig out the mud-filled pool area in our backyard to find him. But still no Jack. After five days, I began to fear what no one wanted to say. My baby boy, Jack, only 17, had perished too. The search teams had not been able to find his body.
Since we’d started our search efforts in 2018, we’d spent many days visually inspecting this creekside wall. But this was the first time the fabric had revealed itself. Upon closer inspection, we determined that the red cloth was the leg of a child’s Halloween costume. We gently worked to free the costume from the tight tomb of cement-like, hard-packed soil; finally, we got it free.
There it was—a child’s Superhero costume. But it was not any child’s costume. It was my son Jack’s.
Sacred Search Team
Scoop by scoop, we cleared and dug, until Ann was certain she had cleared down to the grade of the earth that was not mudslide debris. All of us were losing hope, and we were so perplexed that after three dog alerts, we were finding nothing. We all felt it. Sadness and disappointment descended on us as we worked together. As Ann’s scooping bin cascaded the collected dirt into another area, Sherri yelled, “Stop!” Ann immediately stopped the excavator, and we paused while Sherri went to grab what she had seen.
This volunteer group formed one day as a group of neighbors came together to help dig out other neighbors who were struggling with their mud-filled homes. In a matter of days, this group grew to over 3,000 volunteers who literally moved millions of tons of mud and debris for neighbors, for free and out of the goodness of their hearts. Their efforts defined what community resilience means.
Yellow flowers that were picked near where Jack was finally found.