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California floods: Man whose Prius surfed river of mud recounts tale

by Associated Press and James Rainey /  / Updated 

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LOS ANGELES — A driver who rode a wave of muddy water down a twisting street in his car during a Southern California flood said he is lucky to be alive.

"I just got pushed down the side of a hill by a wall of water and mud," Desionne Franklin said in an Instagram video after Tuesday's terrifying ride. "Rocks flowing, mud flowing everywhere. Barely made it out."

Franklin, 44, and his girlfriend evacuated a friend's home in the city of Burbank where they were staying as waves of storm runoff began pouring down a steep foothill street near hiking trails and a golf course. Water, rocks and mud cascaded down from mountains stripped bare of soil-stabilizing brush by a recent wildfire.

Franklin, who is from Dallas, said he heard rumbling around 6 a.m. Tuesday and saw something he'd never seen before: "river rapids in the middle of a residential street."

But then the rain stopped and the water receded.

"I went back to sleep, not thinking about it," he said Thursday.

Hours later, however, Franklin was told the neighborhood might be in danger and was being evacuated. He and his friend packed their cars and shoveled away several feet of mud that was caked in front of the driveway.

Then, a neighbor reported that rocks and small boulders were beginning to fall farther up the hill.

Franklin said he told everyone, "'We've got to go now.' I was a little frantic."

Related: Montecito mudslide: Mom made frantic dash fleeing flood and fiery explosion

He said his friend packed his daughter and three cats in a car and left. Franklin and his girlfriend left in a gray Prius.

Franklin drove slowly down the steep, curving road through waves of rock-laden, muddy water. The brakes did little good as the wheels skidded on rubble, the steering wheel shuddered and the surging current pushed at the car.

Then, a wave of water crashed into the back of the car.

"My girlfriend was screaming at the top of her lungs: 'Go, go, go! We've got to get out of here!'" Franklin said.

"There was barely any traction," he said. "Then the hydroplaning started. I was completely at the mercy of the flow of the water."

Video by a local firefighters' union showed the car sweeping down and around a curve on the cascade. For 30 seconds, Franklin lost all control of the car before regaining a little traction.

"'Oh, this might be how it ends,'" he said he thought.

On the way, Franklin saw other, mangled cars that had been swept away.

"They looked like wadded-up pieces of paper," he said. "It was terrible."

At last, the Prius made it to the bottom of the hill. Franklin said he and his girlfriend looked at each other and "just sat there, speechless."

Remarkably, nobody was hurt in the flooding. The Prius, which Franklin recently had leased, came away with only a few scratches.

"I love the car now," Franklin said. "It got us through hell and high water, literally."

Later on Friday, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown announced that search and rescue workers discovered the body of an 18th victim, at about 11:30 a.m. PT. Brown identified the victim as 87-year-old Joseph Francis Bleckel of Montecito.

Bleckel had been one of half a dozen people still listed as missing earlier Friday. There was a bit of good news out of the 4 p.m. press conference: Brown said that a member of the public called in during the meeting with reporters to say that John Keating — a man just announced as missing moments earlier — was alive and well. Keating was said to be receiving care at a hospital outside the area.

Six people remain on the missing list, ranging in age from 2 to 53, officials said.

In another blow to the region, the California Highway Patrol announced that a previously predicted Monday reopening for Highway 101, the main north-south artery on the coast, would be postponed.

A CHP spokeswoman said that so much water was still pouring onto the freeway from surrounding neighborhoods that the roadway could not be cleared, despite round the clock efforts by work crews. Officials did not offer a prediction as to win the freeway would be cleared.

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