Fam­ily’s tragedy: In pool to es­cape flames, wife dies in hus­band’s arms

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Erin All­day

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.

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-in­law Cather­ine Ber­riz; and seven grand­chil­dren.

Courtesy Ber­riz fam­ily

Car­men and Ar­mando Ber­riz hud­dled in each other’s arms in a swim­ming pool as the blaze raged around them.

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