Heaven and earth

From the Fall/Winter 2018 Peddie Chronicle

At 4 a.m. on January 9 a mudslide engulfed Napper Tandy’s ’95 house in Montecito, California. A devastating wildfire had just torn through more than 250,000 acres of land including the neighboring Santa Ynez Mountains, which hang above Montecito, and the nearby town of Santa Barbara.

By Napper Tandy '95

“Babe, what’s going on?”

As sleep drains from my eyes and mind, I find my wife, Mary, standing at the foot of our bed. I follow her gaze out the french doors of our bedroom to reveal a chilling red dawn illuminating our yard.

I look at my watch — it reads 4 a.m. A dull edge of dread washes over me as I witness the crimson sky suddenly fade to black, only to illuminate again. Sunrise isn’t until 7 a.m., and I can see my entire yard like it is first light. Somewhere deep in my opaque subconscious, the word fire is muttered. The sky looks like it’s being lit by fire. Again I hear Mary ask, “What is happening?” In a haze of bewilderment and still clinging to sleep, I slowly step out of bed. “I have no idea,” I mutter. Suddenly my wife points and screams, “Oh, my God, there’s a mudslide!”

Devoid of contact lenses or glasses, my nearsighted eyes squint and follow her finger to our front yard where I make out a 2 1/2 foot wall of mud and debris racing towards us at 30 mph.

Without thinking, I’m sprinting to get to our four-year-old son. I tear through a dog-legged hallway, my bare feet grip the freshly refinished wood floors. Rounding a corner to the staircase the glass-paned front door shatters inward showering shards. I reach for the banister of the staircase as my legs are swept out from under me, by a river of cold mud and sharp debris clawing at my legs. I pull myself over the banister as the sound of more bursting glass and splintering wood fill my veins with cold adrenaline and terror.

Napper Tandy '95 muddy staircase

Tandy described a "river of cold mud" that reached the staircase of his home.

I’m surprised to see my son, Ever, at the top of the stairs. I leap up the steps two by two, snatching him up into in my arms. Instinctively I move to the center of the house, positioning us in the doorframe of the bathroom. This is strong. This feels safe. There is another huge wave of exploding glass and wood that bellows from below as Ever yells, trembling. “Daddy, what’s happening?! I’m scared! I can’t stop shaking!”

As I try to form a reply, another crash shakes the house. A closet door shatters in half two feet from where we’re standing. Leaping backward, I stare into the now open closet to find a gaping hole a foot wide revealing the chaos outside. We retreat into the bathroom, and I peer out the window to find the once wooded backyard swept clean. I begin to open the window, mentally assessing our potential need to jump into the mud river below if the house starts to collapse.

Ever and I both survey the scene. But we take in the pulsing red-gray sky and the river of debris carrying 20-foot trees and cars by our house. Or at least I try to. Because my eyesight is so weak, I can only vaguely make out shapes careening by. Ever speaks again, this time slightly more calmly, “I don’t want to jump out the window daddy. Please close the window.” I squeeze him closely. “I don’t want to either bud. Don’t worry we’re not going to.” I can’t fathom leaping into what’s below. Suddenly my mind races to my wife. I stride to the top of the staircase. “Mary! Mary?! Can you hear me?!” My mind reels.

Napper Tandy '95 home after mudslide

The mudslide sheared the Tandy home in half on January 9, 2018.

I thought she was right behind me when I ran for the stairs. How is there no response? Oh, my God, she was swept out of the house. Oh, my God, she’s gone.

“Daddy, where is momma?” I have to almost scream the noise is so loud. “I’m not sure sweetheart. But we’ll find her.” My heart is telling the truth, but my head is lying. Oh, my God, my wife and my unborn daughter have been swept into the night by a raging river of rocks and mud. What is my life now?

I try again to explain to Ever what’s happening. “It’s OK, remember I said it might rain a lot tonight? Well, it did, and the water has raced down the mountains and made a muddy river, which our house is now in the middle of.” The house buckles and screams again with another deafening shatter of wood and glass.

With a gust of cold wind suddenly the door to my son’s bedroom swings open, revealing that his room and his sister-to-be’s room have been torn off the house. A second gust swings both the doors open to reveal a whistling black void and the sound of rushing mud and debris where our living room once was.

I retreat again to the bathroom, mentally choking. My mind skips and stumbles straining to comprehend my reality and how it may get worse. We start to shake from the cold, so I begin making a bed of towels for us.

Every 10 or 15 minutes for the next hour Ever and I walk to the staircase and yell, “Mary?!” “Mom?!”… Then we return to our bed of towels and drift in and out of sleep.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, comes a cry. Ever screams, “Mom!?” We spring up and run to the staircase. “Babe!” I scream. In the distance, I hear Mary’s incredibly distant voice yelling my name. She’s alive! We’re all alive! We’re going to be OK.

Napper Tandy '95 family

Napper Tandy '95 and his family celebrate the birth of their daughter, India. From left: Ever, Napper, Mary and India.

Rescue helicopters began to arrive three hours later. In the end, I would climb over the banister into two feet of mud with my son on my shoulders as a stranger helped my wife out of our bathroom where she had sat on the counter for four hours as mud flowed in within an inch of the countertop.

Mary, Ever and I would hug in the flashing glow of a fire truck. An hour later we would be driven out of Montecito in six-wheeled National Guard trucks. Over the course of the next two weeks, I would live in a state of dazed cheerfulness, seemingly fine with the loss of everything I once owned and dare I say “cherished.” In an instant, my brain had been reset like restarting a computer. There was no stress of possessions, of work — of life. Only joy in my son, wife and unborn daughter being alive and the marvel of our survival.

After the mud flow destroyed Tandy's house, just a few items were recovered from the flood, including these Peddie memorabilia.

Napper Tandy '95 Peddie friends

Cleanup crews recovered this photo of Tandy (left) and his friends from Peddie, Brian DiFeo '96 (center) and Geoff Neumann '95 (right).

Napper Tandy '95 Peddie diploma

Tandy's Peddie diploma was found hundreds of yards from his property.

Napper Tandy '95 lacrosse helmet

Tandy's Peddie lacrosse helmet was found in the debris near his home.