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WATCH: Father recounts 'worst thing imaginable' after five-year-old son lost in California flood

Kyle Doan, 5, was swept away in the floods near San Miguel, California on Monday. Picture: San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Office/The Washington Post

Kyle Doan, 5, was swept away in the floods near San Miguel, California on Monday. Picture: San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Office/The Washington Post

Published Jan 12, 2023


By Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff

As the search for his 5-year-old son continued for a third day, Brian Doan recounted how Kyle separated from his mother, Lindsy Doan, on Monday in San Miguel, California.

Usually the family's 4 000-pound (about 1 800 kg) Chevrolet Traverse easily rolled over any runoff from the San Marcos creek. But that day, with Lindsy driving and Kyle in the back, water quickly carried the car into the overflowing creek, where it clung to a tree, she later told Brian.

Lindsy told Kyle to remove his seat belt and leave his backpack. They would exit the car through her door, where she could reach a tree, she told him.

"Don't worry, mommy," Kyle said to his mother. "It's okay. Don't panic."

Opening the door and bracing against the flowing water, she pulled Kyle out with one hand while holding the tree with the other. The water carried clay and debris from the riverbed, twisting her arms awkwardly and testing her grip. Then the creek forcefully pushed her hand against the tree, and Kyle was gone.

Lindsy screamed for help. She stayed closer to the water's edge and was rescued by a couple whose house looked over the creek. Kyle was whisked into the middle of the river.

This week's deluge of rain - some areas saw as much as 18 inches of rain - has left at least 18 dead, a number higher than the combined totals of recent wildfires. As the storm momentarily breaks, residents in the Doans' small California county have been rallying dozens to sift through the mud and have raised thousands of dollars in just two days. Kyle's parents, along with 80 local and state officials and over 40 community volunteers, are still searching for the 4-foot-tall (about 1,2m ), 52-pound boy with hazel eyes and dirty blond hair.

"It's the worst thing imaginable if you're a parent," Brian Doan said, who recounted the separation to The Washington Post on Wednesday. "You're dealing with a tragedy where there's no bad guy. You're dealing with Mother Nature."

He was trying as much as he could to shield his wife from the media as the story grows into the national spotlight, and his son a stark symbol of the fear and pain Californians experienced this week.

Lindsy Doan is a teacher at Kyle's school. They drove together each morning, Brian said, passing over that low-lying road regularly, which is why she was driving Kyle that wet morning. She didn't see any road closure signs as the storm opened up on California, so she continued on.

Lindsy was not in a position to answer journalists' questions Wednesday, Brian said, because she was exhausted with guilt and regret, replaying each second of the separation, desperately trying to bring back her 5-year-old.

The family is in "recover mode," the father said, bracing for the worst.

Tens of thousands of people remain without power and mass evacuations are under way as California continues to be hit by a series of powerful storms. Graphic: Graphic News

The past year and a half had been difficult at times for Kyle. In August 2021, he tripped and fractured his femur. The recovery was hard for a boy who loved to play soccer, dance to hotel lobby music and play with his older siblings. In November, the rod surgeons had inserted into his leg was finally taken out. He asked his parents constantly when he could play soccer again. After winter break, they told him.

Before New Year's, the family took Kyle and his two older siblings, Tyler, 18, and Melanie, 16, to see his grandma just north of Sacramento. She was worried Kyle would see her as a stranger, Brian said, since they'd rarely seen each other since the pandemic started.

"But he was so loving with her," Brian said. "Just like he is with everyone."

View of flooding from the rainstorm-swollen Sacramento and American Rivers, near downtown Sacramento, California. Picture: Fred Greaves/

Hours after the separation Monday, community members started taking action as local authorities suspended the search for the first time due to the worsening weather. Monday evening was the worst night of the parents' lives, Brian said.

"My baby's not eating so I shouldn't be eating, either," Lindsy told Brian throughout the day. Lindsy finally ate a piece of toast, and friends have been preparing meals for the Doans and the volunteers since.

On Tuesday, Katarena Messer, a friend of the family, set up a GoFundMe and organised volunteer search crews. The San Luis Obispo County sheriff used drones and search teams trained to find people underwater. The waters slowly receded, leaving the land wet and muddy where just days before it was dry and bare from a years-long drought.

By Wednesday, the GoFundMe had already reached its goal of $10 000 (about R170 000), and Messer set up a community Facebook group called, "Bring Kyle Home," that quickly grew to more than 3,000 people. She and dozens of volunteers searched along the creek, often in pairs, as conditions were still dangerous. Their frequent posts show a community trying to help.

"Anyone want to search following the trail from 101 just past San Marcos Creek?" one member wrote.

"Has anyone looked out in the river down that way? If not I'll be going down with my boys," another posted.

"Prayers for a happy ending soon," said another.

Many lost their boots. Messer said she fell waist deep into mud 50 feet from where the creek was now flowing, a sign of how quickly the water levels had gone down. Photos Messer shared with The Post show uprooted trees, broken branches and little mud holes on both sides of the receding creek.

Late Wednesday afternoon local time, over 100 National Guard personnel joined the search team that now consisted of trained divers, K-9 units and members of neighboring sheriffs' departments.

Brian said the family has been grateful for the community's support and the government search teams.

Nights are difficult, when visibility lags and the search is suspended yet again.

"When darkness comes in, you get upset," Brian said. "Why can't we do it? Why can't we find him? He's just out there. It's just so unfair."

The Washington Post