Gone in a Heartbeat
A native of Thailand, he was in his third year as a porter at Toyota of Santa Barbara in the scenic Southern California coastal city. He had just celebrated his 30th birthday. And he had the support of Mike Caldwell, the general manager, to begin T-TEN training that would lead Oom — as his colleagues knew him — to become a Toyota technician, his dream job.
Then, seemingly in a heartbeat, it all disappeared.
Pinit Sutthithepa with his son Pasta, 6, and daughter Lydia, 2.
At 4 a.m. on January 9, a freak storm dumped over half an inch of rain in 30 seconds on a mountainside that – just the week before – had been scorched by a runaway wildfire. It was a deadly combination.
Mud and boulders gave way, sweeping through Oom’s Montecito home while he, his 6-year-old son Pasta, his 2-year-old daughter Lydia, his father-in-law Loring and another relative were fast asleep. Only the relative survived, along with Oom’s wife Yuphawan (Aw) and his mother Banphoem (Perm) who had been working the late shift at a local supermarket.
“Aw and Perm were oblivious to what happened,” says Caldwell. “The road was cut off. But when they got through, they could see that their entire home was gone.”
In all, some 120 homes in the area were destroyed. The mudslide was so fierce that it carried Oom and his son more than two miles away. His daughter’s body was never found.
Meanwhile, his wife and mother were left with literally nothing more than the clothes on their backs and the car the family had bought from the dealership.
“They don’t speak much English,” says Caldwell. “They didn’t know what to do.”
So Caldwell, along with a few other locals, stepped up. In the immediate aftermath, they found emergency shelter, food and clothing. Longer term, they guided them through the process of restoring passports and bank accounts, setting up a post office box, sorting through the insurance claims and taking care of other basic necessities.
And Caldwell created an online GoFundMe page to raise money to help them start to rebuild their lives. He set an initial goal of $25,000. At last count, it had raised about $166,000.
“The dealership was very generous in its assistance, but this was really about the community – and people from around the world – responding,” says Caldwell. “When we got an interpreter to explain to Aw and Perm how many people were sharing in their grief and making donations to help them, they were overwhelmed.”
Caldwell says several Toyota of Santa Barbara employees wanted to reach out directly. But it soon became clear that, in this instance, less was more.
“There were some attempts to come in and console them, but it was just more than Aw and Perm could handle,” he says. “They were so confused in the early days. They kept thinking that Oom would reappear. But our people were definitely there in spirit, even if they couldn’t be there in person.”
Eventually, Aw and Perm returned to Thailand to regroup with their families there. But Caldwell says both plan to return to Santa Barbara. Meanwhile, the dealership is left with a hole in its collective heart.
“Oom was such a well-respected and well-liked individual,” says Caldwell. “He always had a smile on his face and always went above and beyond in his work. You could tell he really enjoyed being here and planned to be with us for the long run. He and his family continue to be on everyone’s mind.”