As central California floodwater swept away their SUV Monday morning, 5-year-old Kyle Doan, now missing, encouraged his mother.
“Don’t worry, Mommy,” the boy said, his father, Brian Doan, recalled Wednesday.
“He wasn’t quite processing what was going on,” Doan told CNN. “But he was so calm talking to my wife while they were still in the car.”
A powerful storm, among the latest to assault the West Coast, has turned streets into rivers and forced the closure of major roadways in California. Nearly 20 lives have been lost during a series of storms in recent weeks that a spokesman for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services on Wednesday called “one of the deadliest disasters in the history of our state.”
Authorities have been searching for Kyle on and off since Monday. Over 100 National Guard members arrived at the scene to help search for the missing child on Wednesday, and more troops are arriving to help Thursday, the county’s sheriff said.
Kyle’s mother, a special education teacher at the same school in the San Luis Obispo County village of San Miguel where he attends kindergarten, managed to remove the boy from his car seat as floodwater overwhelmed their SUV on the way to their school.
“‘Just yourself. Not your backpack. Leave it,’” she told him as they prepared to escape, according to Doan.
Kyle’s mom held onto him, as water poured over the low point in the rural road and began propelling the vehicle.
Pieces of debris mixed with the mounting floodwater as Kyle’s mom clutched the boy, along with a small purse with IDs and her phone.
“She tried to hold on to him and it was hard to stabilize things with the current,” Doan said. “And they got separated.”
No one can question her actions, he insisted.
“She made the best decisions she could,” Doan said, his voice breaking. “I got to keep stressing that. She couldn’t stay in the car with him. The flows were going to overpower the car later on… They got out. That was the right thing to do.”
The mother described the harrowing moment her child slipped away from her after they got out of the car.
“I was basically at that point hugging the tree and trying to grab Kyle’s hands, but the current pushed Kyle out and our hands slipped,” Lindsy Doan told CNN affiliate KSBY.
The SUV was later found upside down and covered in mud and debris, Doan said. The mother was pulled safely out of the water.
The search for Kyle continued on Wednesday, with assistance from other law enforcement agencies, after it was halted the previous afternoon due to low visibility. The initial search had been suspended Monday afternoon because of severe weather, according to the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office.
Crews combing through the area with K-9 dogs were focusing primarily downstream from where the mother was rescued and where Kyle was last seen, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Commander Michael Manuele told KSBY.
Video from the scene showed rescuers examining an SUV that was partially submerged in mud and debris Wednesday.
Brian Doan lamented that he isn’t hopeful.
“The hard thing to say to a lot of people at this point in time is, it’s not a rescue. It’s a recovery,” he said, his voice breaking again. “And that’s something no parent wants to admit. And I kind of knew it after the first night… And it’s a hard, hard concept, especially when it’s your kid.”
Doan said no one has officially called the search a recovery operation.
“I’ve seen enough, you know. It’s tough,” he said. “You know what the odds are. And as much as people try to be optimistic – and I’m supportive for my wife – it’s hard. The first night was damn hard – just thinking, ‘Oh my God, why couldn’t they have found him already?’”
The past year has been a difficult one for Kyle, his father said. The boy tripped and fell in preschool and suffered an injury that required surgery and the placement of rods in his fractured leg.
“He was good about it,” Doan recalled. “He was very adaptable. He started walking around a couple months after that. It was just like nobody knew he had rods in his leg.”
In November, the rods were removed. There was a six-week healing period and restrictions on his movement were now ending. Kyle was eager to start school on Monday after the holiday break.
“He’s a great kid and he liked to dance,” Doan said. “He was very talkative, very outgoing. He liked to be silly and trying to get attention in all those ways that a five-year-old likes to do. He likes to play soccer and he liked his Paw Patrol.”
He added, “He was just looking forward to getting back to school.”
CNN’s Joe Sutton, Cheri Mossburg, Taylor Ward, Raja Razek and Stella Chan contributed to this report.