San Diego

Celebration of Life for Boy, 5, and Friend, 73, Swept Into Rainbow Creek

Phillip Campbell, 5, was traveling in a car with family friend Roland Phillips, 73, on Jan. 22 near Rainbow Creek and Fifth Street when they were carried away by rising water

With heavy hearts, family and friends gathered Saturday to pay tribute to a 5-year-old boy and his caregiver, both killed when they were swept into a rain-swollen creek last month amid strong winter storms.

A "Celebration of Life" ceremony was held at SonRise Christian Fellowship in Fallbrook, in San Diego's North County, for pre-school student Phillip Campbell and the man he lovingly called “Pappy,” Roland Phillips, 73.

Touching tribute videos were shown at the memorial service, one for Phillip and one for Roland. One by one, family members shared stories of both of their lives, many fighting back tears.

Although Phillip and Roland weren't related by blood, the pair were best friends. Roland and his partner, Tracy, helped care for Phillip.

Phillip's family told NBC 7 the boy and his "Pappy" were inseparable and did everything together.

"He followed him everywhere, everywhere," Phillip's grandmother said of the boy's friendship with Roland.

Phillip's uncle, Anthony Campbell, said what he will miss the most about the boy is his "wonderful smile and love."

"He would greet you with a hug; he didn't care to shake hands. He would want to give you a hug and a kiss," Anthony said. "He made you laugh -- in his own way -- just a silly little boy." 

Anthony said it's an emotional time for his family, but they are grateful for the outpouring of support from the community.

He said Saturday was all about finally letting Phillip rest in peace.

“We just need to get to the cemetery and put his little body in the ground and put him to rest,” said Anthony.

Phillip's uncle also said Roland was "a very good man" who dedicated a lot of time, along with Tracy, to helping raise Phillip. Roland was kind and generous, and those traits rubbed off on Phillip.

He called the connection between Phillip and Roland unique and their bond unbreakable.

"It was an awesome relationship. They went everywhere together," he added. "They were two great people."

On Jan. 22, Roland and Phillip were driving to Riverside to look at a car that was for sale. It was the weekend that a series of powerful winter storms hit San Diego County, causing flooding in many parts of the county.

As Roland's Toyota Camry approached the area of Fifth Street, east of Interstate 15 in Rainbow, California, the car was carried away by rising water from Rainbow Creek -- a normally small creek running across San Diego's North County to the Pacific Ocean.

The boy and Roland disappeared into the water.

Cal Fire and the San Diego County Sheriff's Department (SDSO) launched an extensive search for them that lasted five days. Winter storm conditions and water levels in the creek made the first few days of the search extremely difficult and dangerous.

The following day, Jan. 23, Roland’s body was pulled from the creek. However, Phillip was nowhere to be found.

One Rainbow resident told NBC 7 that she saw the boy clinging to a tree limb before disappearing downstream on Jan. 22. The ME's report said other witnesses called 911 to report the child floating in the creek.

The searched pressed on – by ground and air – over the next five days. On Jan. 24, SDSO officials searched by helicopter from the point where Roland’s vehicle was believed to have entered the creek to the ocean. A crew flew low enough for searchers to try and spot any sign of the child.

Again, nothing.

Deputies said their mission was a recovery effort, not a rescue, as Phillip was presumed dead. As the rain stopped and water levels dropped, the search resumed on Jan. 25 and again on Jan. 26.

Four swift water teams moved up and down the creek. SDSO search and rescue teams canvassed the area.

Finally, on Jan. 26, just after 11 a.m., Phillip's body was found in the water, buried under 6 to 8 feet of debris.

Cal Fire Division Chief Nick Schuler said the boy was found in very thick brush and trees, in an area referred to by officials as a “strainer.”

Schuler said strainers are areas where large trees have fallen across the creek and where debris and brush has gotten hung up as the water rushes through.

He said Cal Fire’s inmate hand crews were removing debris and brush in a heavily-wooded strainer area when they noticed a small shoe lying in the brush. As they removed more debris, they uncovered the body of a little boy.

The area where the body was found is near Moon Valley Nurseries on the west side of Interstate 15.

Schuler said the area was difficult to access, making for a “very technical search – very complicated and dangerous.”

“[The creek] probably flowed in excess of 15 to 18 feet deep and 80 feet wide,” he explained. “He was buried in approximately 6 to 8 feet of debris.”

“It literally was like a needle in a haystack to try and find this little boy,” he added.

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