A woman who lost her mother and her baby in the Washington mudslide said Wednesday that she is determined to find the body of the 4-month-old girl who had lit up their lives with her sweet smile.
"We won't stop until we find her. She means the world to so many people. She's what’s keeping us going," Natasha Huestis, 26, told NBC News.
"We'll find her. She can't be far."
Huestis' mother, Christina Jefferds, was found on Sunday, a day after the terrible slide and is the first person to be formally identified as a victim. She had been watching her granddaughter, Sanoah, when the wall of mud flattened their house.
At the time, Huestis was at Costco with her aunt after they both went to a yoga class. A friend of her stepfather, who is a volunteer firefighter, spotted her and told her to call home and "check in."
She thought it was strange but decided to dial the house. The answering machine that would normally pick up didn't answer, and she began to worry.
Then a call came in from stepfather Seth Jefferds' number. On the other end was a voice she didn't recognize, asking if she was related to him.
"What's happened? Where's my mom? Where's my baby?" Huestis remembers asking in a panic.
Everything that happened afterward is a blur, but she and her aunt went to the fire station, where they learned there had been a huge mudslide.
"She's with my mom and she's in a beautiful place."
Each piece of information that trickled in brought more bad news. "It was more and more heartbreaking and everyone was crying," she recalled.
Her family's home and two others had been turned into an unrecognizable mountain of debris sitting atop 12 feet of mud.
Somewhere under there was Sanoah. Huestis, her stepdad and volunteers spent three days pulling apart the wreckage to look for her.
She found her mother's dresser and her parents' bed. Sanoah's crib was also there — barely used since the baby nearly always slept with her mother.
A single mother, Huestis said Jefferds — who was also on her own when she had her at 18 — was teaching her how to be a parent.
On Friday night, she had thanked Jefferds, a dental clinic manager with a striking mane of curly red hair, for always being there.
"I couldn’t do this without her. There was no way I could have Sanoah and be the mom I wanted to be without her here," she said.
Sanoah was born two weeks early, and her mother said she was now thankful for that "extra time." She learned to smile when she was a month-old and never stopped.
"I would keep trying to make her laugh because she was so close before we lost her," Huestis said.
"She was just happy," she said. "What a beautiful baby! She’s so happy, she’s so loving. You just couldn’t stop loving her. You couldn’t stop holding her."
And Jefferds was just as in love with her granddaughter. "That little girl brought so much joy to her life," Huestis said.
The night before the mudslide, the family had driven through the hills. Huestis said the infant was captivated by the scenery.
"Sanoah's name is Hawaiian and her name means 'mist in the mountains,''" she said.
The symbolism, she said, was almost "perfect" — except that was the wrong word to describe such a tragic event.
After a moment, however, she was able to put into words the solace she found in that idea.
"She’s with my mom," Huestis said. "And she’s in a beautiful place."