Before being swept away in California floodwaters, a 5-year-old boy told his mother to “be calm.”

When Lindsey Doan tried to drive her 5-year-old son to school in her SUV over the creek crossing on San Marcos Road, she didn’t think the water was higher than usual.

But the creek was much higher and moving faster than she thought it would be because of all the rain from California’s epic winter storms. Doan cursed as she lost control of the steering and the 4,300-pound Chevy Traverse went off the road and got stuck against a big sycamore tree.

Kyle, her son, said to her from the back seat, “Mom, it’s OK,” “Just be calm.”

They were the last words the little boy said to his mother before his fingers slipped from hers 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’ve tried to do a Google search: How long can a child not eat? How long can they be in wet clothes? … We’re worried because I don’t know if they’re going to be able to find him.”

More than 100 people, including National Guard troops, dive teams, searchers with dogs and drones, and people picking through shoulder-high piles of driftwood on the banks of San Marcos Creek, looked for Kyle for a third day on Wednesday. So far, only one of his blue and gray Nike shoes has been found.

At least 18 people have died because of the storms that have been hitting California nonstop since the end of last year. Most of the deaths have been caused by trees that fell on people and by people who drove on roads that were flooded.

Kyle was put on the list as missing.

He is the youngest in his family, with a sister in high school and a brother in college. He loves being the center of attention.

“He definitely capitalized on it,” his mother said. “He loves making everyone laugh. He wanted to make everyone smile. He loves to please people.”

Kyle was happy to go back to kindergarten at Lillian Larsen Elementary School on Monday after his vacation, his mother said. It was the first day he could play without any restrictions after breaking his leg and having three surgeries, and he was looking forward to seeing his friends.

Doan, who taught special education at the school, was less excited. She took a back road from their home near Paso Robles and wished she had a few more days off.

The creek that runs along San Marcos Road is like many other California rivers and streams: it is a winding band of sand that only runs when it rains in the winter and spring. When it’s moving, it’s often easy to drive through the shallow water that flows over the road in some places.

The Doan family took the same route to a truck stop on Highway 101 on Sunday. They splashed through the water without any problems.

When Doan got there on Monday, it was raining lightly, but there were no closed roads, and she didn’t think it looked any different than the day before.

“But as soon as I hit the bottom, my car started to drift and I realized that it wasn’t the same,” she said. “It was completely different.”

Scotty Jalbert, who is in charge of emergency services for San Luis Obispo County, said that river crossings can be deceiving, and even if someone has crossed a river successfully several times, they could still get into trouble. Even just 6 inches (15 centimeters) of water can knock a person off their feet and even push a fast-moving car off course.

“We use the term, ‘Turn around, don’t drown,'” Jalbert said. “With this tragedy, when the responders got to the scene, the water was over the vehicle. Obviously, that kind of energy is going to cause a bad situation.”

Jalbert said that if you’re stuck in a car that’s filling up with water, you should get out if you can and get on the roof if you can.

Neil Collins and his wife, Danielle, own an orchard off of San Marcos Road. That morning, they went down to the creek to see if they could get across the floodwaters.

When he saw the waves of muddy brown water and the steady flow of strong oak and sycamore limbs going downstream, he said, “This isn’t going to end well for someone.”

In about 15 minutes, what he said came true.

Doan’s car got stuck between two trees and started taking on water, so she gave up on it. She couldn’t get the windows to go down, but she could open her door and hug a tree. She told Kyle to leave his things behind and get into the front seat because the current was holding the back door shut.

She said, “I don’t care about your backpack,” “I just want you to come to me.” I said.

She was able to grab his hand, but her grip was not very strong, and Kyle was carried around the other side of the tree by the current.

She said, “I could feel his fingers slipping from mine,”

As the water pulled them apart, she let go of the tree to try to save her son, who couldn’t swim.

“I saw his head kind of floating and he was looking at me because he was going backwards,” she said. “I was trying to keep my head above the water, but the currents kept pulling me down. And after a while I didn’t see Kyle or what was going on.”
Collins didn’t see Doan drive into the creek before it happened. But his attention was drawn to her screams.

“I looked at my wife and said, ‘That sounds like a human,'” he said. “I heard a second scream and just ran up the river.”

He thought that when the river is running, it could be up to 12 feet (3.6 meters) deep and four times as wide as it is in the winter.

Collins saw Lindsey Doan struggling to stay afloat, and then he saw another body floating in the middle of the creek. It looked like it was dead. So he turned his attention to Doan, who was closer to land.

He ran with her downriver while his wife called 911 and some people who worked in an orchard brought a rope. Doan finally got a hold of some underwater bush branches, and Collins and his crew threw her a life line.

Collins said that when Doan got to land, she was in tears. Then he realized that the other person who had passed by was her little boy.

He’s not sure he could have helped Doan if she had floated another 100 yards (91 meters). He couldn’t have run with her because there was a hill and a barbed wire fence in the way.

He said, “Time was running out,”

Kyle’s dad, Brian Doan, is glad that his wife was saved. He doesn’t blame her for taking that route, and he thinks she did the right things to try to save their son.

Lindsey Doan can’t stop having second thoughts.

“In the back of your mind, it’s like, ‘Well, what if, what if, what if I just turned around and went back the other way?'” she said. “What if, what if I had just decided, ‘Hey, you know, let’s not go down this road this day?’ I don’t know that that’s ever going to disappear.”

When asked what her son might say to her at this time, Doan took a deep breath and gathered her thoughts before saying that Kyle always wanted his family to be happy and feel good.

“Maybe he would say something like … ‘There’s nothing that you can do, Mom, it’s OK. Everything will be OK.”

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