Lindsey Doan didn’t think the water flowing through the creek on San Marcos Road was deeper than usual when she tried to navigate it in her SUV while taking her 5-year-old son to school.
But the brook, swollen by rain from California’s epic winter storms, was much higher and flowing stronger than she expected. Doane cursed as she lost control of the steering, sending the 4,300-pound Chevy Traverse off the road and into a large sycamore tree.
“Mom, it’s okay,” her son Kyle reassured her from the back seat. – Just calm down.
Those were the last words a little boy said to his mother before his fingers slipped from her and he was swept away Monday on California’s central coast near Paso Robles.
“Yesterday I got to the point where I think I ran out of tears,” Doan told The Associated Press. “I just don’t know what to expect anymore. I mean, I tried to do a Google search: how long can a baby go without food? How long can they be in wet clothes? … We are worried because we don’t know if they will be able to find him.”
More than 100 people, including National Guard troops, diving teams, searchers using dogs and drones and people picking through piles of driftwood on the banks of San Marcos Creek, searched for Kyle for a third day Wednesday. So far they have only found one of his blue and gray Nike shoes.
The authorities have called the search a “top priority.”
The storms that mercilessly hit California since the end of last year have claimed at least 18 lives. Most of the deaths occurred due to falling trees and people driving through flooded roads.
Kyle was reported missing.
With a sister in high school and a brother in college, he is the baby of his family and loves being the center of attention.
“He’s definitely earned it,” his mother said. “He likes to make everyone laugh. He wanted to make everyone smile. He likes to please people.’
As the vacation came to an end, Kyle was excited to return to kindergarten at Lillian Larsen Elementary School on Monday, his mother said. It was the first day he was allowed to play without restrictions after recovering from a broken leg that required three surgeries, and he was looking forward to seeing his friends.
Doane, a special education teacher at the school, was less enthusiastic, wishing she had a few more days off as she drove down the road from their home near Paso Robles.
For most of the year, the creek that flows along San Marcos Road is like many California rivers and streams – a meandering strip of sand that flows only during winter and spring rains. When it is flowing, it is often quite easy to drive through the shallow water, which in places flows over the road.
The Doan family drove the same route Sunday to a truck stop on Highway 101, splashing through the water without incident.
When Doane approached the creek Monday in a light rain, the roads weren’t closed, and she didn’t think it looked any different than the day before.
“But as soon as I got to the bottom, the car started to slide, and I realized it wasn’t the same,” she said. “It was completely different.”
Scotty Jalbert, San Luis Obispo County Emergency Services Manager, said river crossings can be treacherous and people can run into problems after successfully crossing them a few times. Just 6 inches of water is enough to knock a person off their feet and even knock a car off course if it’s moving fast.
“We use the term ‘Turn around, don’t sink,'” Jalbert said. “In connection with this tragedy, when the rescuers arrived at the scene, the water was over the car. Obviously, that kind of energy would lead to a bad situation.”
Jalbert said a person trapped in a vehicle taking on water should get out if they can and get on the roof if possible.
Neil Collins and his wife, Danielle, who own an orchard off San Marcos Road, went down to the creek that morning to see if they could get through the floodwaters.
When he saw the waves of the murky brown water and the continuous current carrying the strong oak and sycamore branches downstream, he said, “This is not going to end well for anybody.”
After 15 minutes, his prediction came true.
After Doan’s car stopped in the trees, it started taking on water, so she decided to leave it. The windows didn’t roll down, but she was able to open the door and hug the tree. With the back door bolted shut, she told Kyle to leave his things and get in the front seat.
“I don’t care about your backpack,” she said. – I just want you to come to me.
She managed to grab his hand, but her grip was weak, and the current carried Kyle to the other side of the tree.
“I could feel his fingers slipping out of mine,” she said.
As the water separated them, she let go of the tree to try to retrieve her son, who could not swim.
“I saw his head kind of floating and he was looking at me because he was walking back,” she said. “I tried to keep my head above water, but the currents kept pulling me down. And after a while, I didn’t see Kyle and what was going on.”
Collins was sad to see Doane drive into the creek. But her screams caught his attention.
“I looked at my wife and said, ‘That sounds like a man,'” he said. “I heard a second scream and just ran upriver.”
The river might be waist-deep in a normal winter, but he guessed it was 12 feet deep and four times its width when flowing.
After he spotted Lindsay Doan struggling to stay afloat, Collins noticed another body floating in the middle of the creek and thought it looked lifeless. So he focused on Doan, who was closer to shore.
He ran downstream beside her while his wife called 911 and some garden workers brought a rope. Doan eventually managed to grab some brush branches underwater and Collins and his team threw her a lifeline.
Doane was hysterical when she reached shore, Collins said. Only then did he realize that the other figure floating by was her little boy.
If Doan had swum another 100 yards, he’s not sure he could have helped her. An embankment and barbed wire fence would prevent him from running alongside her.
“Time passed,” he said.
Brian Doan, Kyle’s father, is thankful his wife was saved. He doesn’t blame her for taking that route and believes she did the right thing to save their son.
Lindsay Doan can’t stop second-guessing herself.
“Deep down, it’s like, ‘Well, what if, what if, what if I just turned around and went the other way?’ ” she said. “What if I just decided, ‘Hey, you know, let’s not go down that road today?’ I don’t know that it will ever go away.”
When asked what her son might say to her at this time, Doane took a breath and collected her thoughts before saying that Kyle always wanted his family to be happy and feel good.
“Maybe he’d say something like… ‘You’re not going to do anything, Mom, it’s okay.’ Everything will be fine.”