Wine Country wildfires: Huddled in pool amid blaze, wife dies in husband’s arms
Updated 7:19 pm, Thursday, January 25, 2018
As fire raged all around them and smoke choked their lungs, Carmen and Armando Berriz had no choice but to cling to one another while immersed in a swimming pool behind their rented house on the north edge of Santa Rosa.
They held on through the long hours of the night, until the flames that had destroyed the house on the forested cul-de-sac finally began to recede, until the heat was no longer unbearable. And just before daybreak, just as the worst of the inferno had passed, Carmen Berriz stopped breathing. She died in the arms of her husband of 55 years.
Carmen Berriz, 75, of Apple Valley in San Bernardino County, was one of 31 victims of the fires that have swept through Northern California this week. She died on Monday as the Tubbs Fire raced from Calistoga west into Santa Rosa, surprising residents and firefighters. Her husband, 76, suffered serious burns but survived.
“Everything they did was as a team,” said daughter Monica Ocon in an interview Thursday, after the Sonoma County coroner’s office began to release names of some of the dead. “They had this bond and this strength that literally lasted a lifetime.”
The couple had been vacationing at a home on Crystal Court, at the top of a hill east of Highway 101 and above Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood, which would be devastated by the fires.
Every year the Berrizes took a trip with their daughter and son-in-law, a combined Mother’s Day-Father’s Day-birthday gift, to some wonderful place. This year the family chose Wine Country.
For three days, they toured wineries and lounged around the house, swimming in the backyard pool and enjoying the fine early autumn weather.
“We had three of the best days ever,” said son-in-law Luis Ocon. On Sunday, the Ocons’ daughter joined them, and they invited the owner of the house over for wine and appetizers. There was a lot of laughter.
How to Help and Get Help
The Red Cross is organizing relief efforts in the North Bay. Evacuees trying to connect with family and friends should check the organization's Safe and Well website: www.redcross.org/safeandwell
Community volunteers who want to help in relief efforts can sign up with the Red Cross: http://tinyurl.com/RedCrossVolOctober2017
Donations to help those affected by California wildfires and other disasters can be made at www.redcross.org. People can also call (800) 733-2767 or text the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.
People needing information about a missing person in Sonoma County can call the county Fire and Emergency Services Department at (707) 565-3856.
It was around 1 a.m. Monday that Luis Ocon was awakened by something outside, maybe the wind. He looked out the window and saw, among the swaying trees, a glowing red ember falling to the ground.
“It blew up,” he said. “It hit the ground and just blew up.”
Instantly, flames licked toward the sky, lighting up trees and encircling the house. Luis Ocon woke his wife, his daughter and his in-laws. Everyone ran from the house in just the clothes they’d been sleeping in. Armando and Carmen Berriz managed to pull on shoes.
Outside, the family made a panicked scramble to their cars. Luis Ocon took the lead, then his wife and daughter in a second car. He saw his in-laws get into the third car and take off behind him.
The drive was horrifying. They were surrounded by fire and smoke so thick that Luis Ocon could hardly see in front of him, so he drove by the feel of the tires on the reflectors that bumped like braille down the middle of the road.
At the bottom of the hill he stopped, then ran to his wife when she pulled up. There they waited for her parents.
When no one arrived, he sent his wife and daughter farther down the hill to safety. Luis Ocon tried to drive back to find them, but he could only make it halfway up. The flames were too high, too hot. He feared the worst.
At the top of the hill, the Berrizes hadn’t made it far. One, perhaps two houses down, Armando Berriz got stuck on a fallen tree. He turned to his wife and said they had to get back to the house. The pool, he told her. They had to get in the water.
She trusted him. Armando and Carmen Berriz had known each other for more than 60 years, since they were children in Cuba. They fled the island nation separately in the 1950s, and exchanged letters and phone calls before marrying and settling in Southern California, where they raised their three children.
When Armando Berriz said to get in the water, she did. They ran from their car, through flame and smoke that seemed impenetrable, and jumped in.
The flames, Armando Berriz later told his daughter and son-in-law, were climbing 30 feet high. They engulfed the house and all the trees around it. The fire burned so hot it melted the chaise longues around the pool, and the wind whipped so hard that the furniture soared over their heads.
In the water, Armando Berriz kept them afloat by hanging onto the brick sides, which were hot as oven racks and burned the palms of his hands. His wife held onto him. They dipped as deep as they could get into the water, at times keeping only their noses and mouths, and Armando Berriz’s hands, exposed.
When his wife stopped breathing, Armando Berriz held her still. He held her for hours, he later told his daughter and son-in-law.
The flames had burned out, and the smoke was clearing, when he let go. He carried her as best he could to the shallow water at the steps to the pool, and he crossed her arms over her chest. He’d lost a shoe at some point, and he quietly asked his wife’s permission to borrow one of hers.
He walked 2 miles down the hill, past shells of houses and cars and the blackened stakes of trees, until he was found by firefighters who called his family and took him to safety.
“They both made it through the worst of it,” Monica Ocon said. “That makes me so proud. They made it because they had each other’s strength.”
Her mother always had problems with her lungs, Monica Ocon said, and “it was her lungs that failed her. But she did what it took to get through the worst. She didn’t give up.”
Safe at the bottom of the hill, Monica and Luis Ocon had spent a torturous night wondering what had become of the Berrizes. Luis Ocon had met a firefighter, Jason Novak with Cal Fire, while he was fleeing, and though Novak had made him leave, he’d promised to look for the Berrizes. He’d taken Luis’ cell phone number and said he would call.
The Ocons dropped their daughter off at a friend’s house in Petaluma, then spent all night and all morning searching evacuation sites and hospitals.
A text came from Novak around 9 a.m. Monday telling them to come, right away, to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital.
Monica Ocon ran inside, but her husband spotted the firefighter, who waved him over. The firefighter was just getting out of an emergency vehicle, and behind him, from the back of the truck, came Armando Berriz. hands and arms wrapped in gauze, face pocked with burns, but alive.
“I was elated that he was coming out,” Luis Ocon said. “And I waited and I waited, and no one else came out behind him.”
Luis paused, silent. “My father-in-law is a hero,” he said.
Armando Berriz spent a night in a burn unit in Southern California, and he suffered some smoke inhalation, but he’s back at the home in Apple Valley he shared with his wife, and he’s going to be OK, his family said.
“He’s had a rough time,” Luis Ocon said. “But he’s unbelievably strong.”
Carmen Berriz was born in Havana, where she lived until her family moved to Miami in 1958. She met her future husband when she was just 12 and he was 13, but they both knew they wanted to marry someday. After dating for years, they married in 1962, in Little Havana in Miami, and left the next day for California.
She worked for United Airlines in different jobs for 26 years before retiring, and then she and Armando Berriz traveled widely. This year alone they’d been to Iceland, Vietnam, Cambodia and all over Europe.
She was the heart of their family, Luis Ocon said.
“She was an incredible mother, a phenomenal friend, a mentor to the family,” he said. “She was the glue that held everybody together. She was my wife’s best friend.”
In addition to her husband, her daughter Monica and her son-in-law Luis, Carmen is survived by another daughter, Carmen T. Berriz; son Armando J. Berriz and daughter-in-law Catherine Berriz; and seven grandchildren.
Erin Allday is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com