A woman in Santa Rosa, California, died on Monday after spending the night seeking shelter in a pool as flames from the California wildfires engulfed the hilltop rental house she was vacationing in without warning.
Carmen Berriz, 75, became one of the 31 victims in the deadly wildfires currently sweeping through California’s wine country, CNN reported.
By her side at the time of her death was 76-year-old Armando Berriz, her husband of 55 years.
The pair were traveling with their daughter Monica Ocon, her husband Luis Ocon and their granddaughter in what has become an annual getaway for the blended family — taken as combined Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and birthday gift, The San Francisco Chronicle reported. This year they had chosen the famed wine country in norther California, and spent three days touring wineries and lounging in their house.
They had all played board games that evening, unaware that deadly flames from the quick-spreading inferno were heading their way. Luis told CNN it was around 1 a.m. that he finally noticed the red glow of the embers outside, upon turning off the lights in the house.
“It was like an explosion. It just lit up,” Luis remembered, explaining that fire had surrounded the house within moments. “It’s hard to explain unless you were there. It went from embers to complete engulfment, completely around us, in 30 seconds, 40 seconds at most.”
Fleeing for safety, the family split themselves up into three cars — he in one, Monica and her daughter in another, and Carmen and Armando in the third — and drove down the ridge for safety as burning trees fell into the road around them.
When the Ocons reached the bottom, they learned that Carmen and Armando’s car was nowhere to be found.
As the family would learn later, Carmen and Armando had become trapped by a fallen tree during the drive. Unable to move past it, they exited their car and made their way back up to the house where, as Monica told CNN, “They went hand in hand, together, and jumped into the pool.”
In the pool, Carmen and Armando clung to one another, poking their mouths and noses out of the water to try to breathe and hanging onto the pool’s pipping hot brick sides. They prayed together as propane tanks exploded around them, one even burning Armando’s hand. “They were a team,” Luis told CNN. “They counted on each other.”
They had relied on another another during difficult times before in the 60 years they had known one another. Growing up in Cuba, each had fled the island nation separately in the 1950s, The San Francisco Chronicle reported, exchanging letters and phone calls while apart.
Eventually they would settle in southern California, the paper continued, where they raised their three children including daughter Monica, daughter Carmen T. Berriz and son Armando J. Berriz.
Still in the pool, Carmen and Armando held on as the fire destroyed the house in the forested cul-de-sac through the long hours of the night. Sadly, though, the smoky air would eventually choke Carmen’s lungs. “My mom’s breath didn’t have the stamina to make it any more,” Monica told CNN, saying her mom died around 7 a.m. — just as the worst of the inferno has passed.
Armando was there by her side the entire time, only leaving to find safety after hours later after the fire died down. “Everything they did was as a team,” Monica told The San Francisco Chronicle. “They had this bond and this strength that literally lasted a lifetime.”
“It was her lungs that failed her,” Monica added to the paper, telling them her mother had always had lung problems. “But she did what it took to get through the worst. She didn’t give up.”
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While separated, Luis had attempted to head back up to find his in-laws, his wife and daughter now seeking sanctuary at a friends house, he told CNN. But the fires forced him to turn back. After some time, he and Monica left fearing the worse.
Armando would later escape, making his way down the 2 mile ridge to safety, CNN reported. He and his family were reunited later at the hospital where he was being treated for severe burns.
“He’s a strong 76,” Monica told CNN of her father, who recounted his story to his kids. “It’s amazing.”
“My father-in-law is a hero,” added Luis to The San Francisco Chronicle.