Sur­rounded by in­ferno, cou­ple chose to freeze

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - ROBIN ABCARIAN

Jan Pas­coe and her hus­band, John, were trapped. The world was on fire, and Jan was hy­per­ven­ti­lat­ing from fear. Then they re­mem­bered their neigh­bors’ pool.

“You’ve got to calm down, Jan,” she told her­self. “You can’t go un­der­wa­ter and hy­per­ven­ti­late.”

At 12:40 a.m. Mon­day, Jan called 911. She reached a dis­patcher.

“We are go­ing to get into the neigh­bors’ pool, should we do this?’

The dis­patcher said, “Get any­where safe.”

“Please. We will be in the pool,” Jan replied. “This is where we are.”

“In my naivete, all night long,” she would tell me later, “I thought some­one would come to get us.”

Jan, 65, and her hus­band, John, 70, de­bated when to get in. She wanted to right away, but John said, “Hold off. The water’s cold. Let’s see what hap­pens.”

As they stood at the edge of the pool, the neigh­bors’ house caught fire. A big tree next to the pool went up in flames. The rail­road ties fram­ing the con­crete steps lead­ing to the pool ig­nited.

“The heat was ‘whoa,’ ” John said. He stripped off his pants and jacket, and wear­ing only a T-shirt, turned to Jan and said, “Jump in now.”

She was wear­ing a thin tank top and light­weight pa­jama bot­toms. Her glasses had dis­ap­peared.

They sub­merged them­selves in the black­ened, de­bris-filled water. They had grabbed T-shirts to hold over their faces to pro­tect them­selves from em­bers when they sur­faced for air.

They moved to the part of the pool far­thest from the house. John was wor­ried about hav­ing to tread water, or hang­ing on to the side, which could be dan­ger­ous with all the burn­ing ob­jects fly­ing around. Bless­edly, the pool had no deep end. It was about 4 feet deep all the way across.

To stay warm, they held

each other. They stood back to back. They spoke about their deep love for each other and their fam­ily.

Jan watched the moon for clues about time pass­ing. It didn’t move.

She waited for the house to burn to the ground, for the fire to pass so they could warm them­selves on the con­crete steps. The wind howled and the sound of ex­plo­sions filled the air. Propane tanks? Am­mu­ni­tion? They had no idea.

“I just kept go­ing un­der,” she said. It was the only way to sur­vive. “And I kept say­ing, ‘How long does it take for a house to burn down?’ We were freez­ing.”

She had tucked her phone into her shoe at the pool’s edge. When she saw it next, it had melted.

At bed­time, there had been no hint of the con­fla­gra­tion to come.

Around 10 p.m. Sun­day, Jan had walked out onto the deck of the home she and John, an artist and re­tired wine bro­ker, had built in the hills above Santa Rosa. She wanted to look at the moon, and check on her tomato plants. It was a beau­ti­ful Oc­to­ber night. The sky was clear.

She took a shower, and when she got out, she smelled smoke. John went out­side and thought he saw fire, but it was just the moon ris­ing.

“We’d ex­pe­ri­enced fire be­fore,” said Jan, who re­tired from Sonoma Coun­try Day School in June. “But the is­sue al­ways was, how far away is it?”

At that point, ac­cord­ing to her phone, it was 11 miles away. They’d re­ceived no of­fi­cial alerts. They got into bed. Their older daugh­ter, Zoe Gi­raudo, called from San Fran­cisco. Her fa­therin-law’s home in Napa Val­ley’s Sil­ver­ado neigh­bor­hood had burned down. That was 40 miles from the Pas­coes.

“I think you guys should evac­u­ate,” Zoe said.

Maybe she was right. No need to panic, but just to be pru­dent, John grabbed tow­els and gen­tly wrapped two Dale Chi­huly glass bowls that he in­her­ited from his mother and put them in his Toy­ota Ta­coma truck. He took some of his paint­ings.

A cou­ple hours later, the wind kicked up fe­ro­ciously. It felt like a dry hur­ri­cane.

Soon, the Pas­coes would be fac­ing a choice no one should ever have to make: Do we freeze or do we burn?

Zoe called again at mid­night: “You guys need to get out.”

“I looked out the win­dow,” Jan said, “and all I saw was a red glow. I said, ‘John, we’ve got to get out of here.’ ”

She scooped up their 17-year-old cat and ran to her Mercedes-Benz sedan. John got in his truck. They drove down their long drive­way to Heights Road.

“It was a wall of flames,” Jan said. They drove back up and parked next to their 1,800-square-foot house. When Jan opened her car door, the cat leaped out and has not been seen since.

Their moun­tain­top home was built like a boat with small rooms on 11 lev­els. It was filled with dozens of John’s paint­ings.

Each room was de­signed to re­mind them of places they’d en­coun­tered dur­ing their trav­els. One had tatami mats, an idea from a res­tau­rant in Bangkok. Their bed­room was in­spired by a house they’d rented on Thai­land’s Ko Sa­mui Is­land. Their ex­pan­sive decks, the site of count­less par­ties over nearly four decades, of­fered spec­tac­u­lar views of the hills.

Wind-driven flames were clos­ing in.

“We were in sur­vival mode,” Jan said. “What are we go­ing to do? What are we go­ing to do?”

I met the Pas­coes on Wed­nes­day evening at Zoe’s house in San Fran­cisco’s Ma­rina neigh­bor­hood. They were clean and com­posed, a hand­some cou­ple in bor­rowed clothes.

They sat side by side on an over­stuffed couch, hold­ing hands, re­count­ing the night they could have died. Oc­ca­sion­ally, John’s eyes filled with tears. The depth of their loss had not quite sunk in.

The only phys­i­cal hint of their trauma was the color of Jan’s feet, still soot­stained de­spite a per­fect pedi­cure. Jan wore a cozy, soft sweat­shirt, and shiv­ered. “We can’t get warm,” she said.

On Sun­day night, Zoe, 38, and her sis­ter, Mia, 32, had spent ex­cru­ci­at­ing hours on the phone — with each other, hospi­tals, shel­ters, friends and rel­a­tives.

At 7 a.m. Mon­day, Zoe looked at her hus­band and said, “Do you think they are gone? Do you think I need to pre­pare my­self for this?”

An hour and a half later, they got word that their par­ents had sur­vived.

“We started sob­bing,” Mia said.

“I started scream­ing,” Zoe said. “The first thing Mom said to me was, ‘I feel so bad I wasn’t able to get ahold of you.’ ‘You’re apol­o­giz­ing to me? Af­ter all you’ve been through?’ ”

At first light, the Pas­coes had been in the pool for about six hours. When the worst seemed to be over, John slipped Jan’s melted shoes onto his feet as best he could and picked his way up the hill to see their house. It was gone.

All his paint­ings. The Chi­huly bowls. Ev­ery­thing.

When I made my way to their house Wed­nes­day, I saw their burned-out car and truck sit­ting on rims. I drove about a third of a mile to their neigh­bors’ house and saw the pool from the drive­way.

The whole scene looked like the af­ter­math of the apoc­a­lypse. The child­proof fenc­ing was in tat­ters. The water looked toxic. At the far end of the pool, on the deck­ing, a life-size statue of a cheru­bic an­gel made it through the con­fla­gra­tion un­scathed.

The Pas­coes had no idea how wide­spread and de­struc­tive the Tubbs fire had been. En­tire neigh­bor­hoods had been laid to waste between their home and High­way 101, a dis­tance of about five miles.

John was naked but for the T-shirt he wore when he jumped into the pool. His clothes had blown away. He fash­ioned Jan’s tank top into a loin­cloth.

“I made a di­a­per out of it,” he said.

Jan wore her pa­jama bot­toms and the T-shirt she’d draped over her head.

Their faces were sooty. Their blondish gray hair was black­ened and mat­ted from all the soot and ash. It was about 55 de­grees. They were wet, cold and bare­foot. But they were alive.

“We held hands,” John said, “and walked out.”

Brian van der Brug Los An­ge­les Times

JOHN AND JAN PAS­COE sur­vived the wild­fire that rav­aged Santa Rosa early Mon­day by spend­ing six har­row­ing hours in their neigh­bors’ pool, in the back­ground. “We were in sur­vival mode,” Jan said.

Brian van der Brug Los An­ge­les Times

SANTA ROSA res­i­dents John and Jan Pas­coe re­visit their neigh­bors’ pool, where they spent six hours while their neigh­bor­hood burned to the ground.

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