Salinas woman's mom dies in husbands arms after taking refuge from wildfire in pool

SANTA ROSA, Calif. - KPIX-A couple married for 55 years who were enjoying a family Wine Country visit in Santa Rosa got caught up in the deadly Tubbs fire Monday morning, according to a report by the San Francisco Chronicle.

Carmen and Armando Berriz, who lived in the small Southern California town of Apple Valley, had been staying at a rented house on the north end of Santa Rosa on Crystal Court for several days with their daughter, Salinas resident Monica Berriz Ocon, and son-in-law, Luis Ocon, the Chronicle reported.

The visit happened during an annual family trip.

The family had spent three days enjoying winery tours and swimming in the rental home’s backyard swimming pool, reveling in the gorgeous autumn weather and enjoying each others’ company.

According to the Chronicle, it was early Monday morning when Luis Ocon was woken up by something outside, possibly the strong winds that would fan the flames and spread burning embers of the explosive wildfires that began a few hours earlier.

Ocon said he spotted a glowing ember that “…hit the ground and just blew up.”

Flames quickly surrounded the home, Ocon told the Chronicle. He woke his wife, daughter and in-laws Carmen and Armando and they rushed out of the house in their pajamas. The family piled into three separate cars and frantically drove away from the conflagration.

But Ocon said that as he and his wife and daughter waited the bottom of the hill from the rented home, the car being driven by his in-laws never materialized. He told his wife to take their daughter to safety and attempted to drive back and find the couple, but authorities stopped him, saying it was too dangerous.

My father very level headed and very resourcefully said We’ve got to go back to the house and jump in the pool And that’s what they did

According to the Chronicle, Armando Berriz later told his daughter and son-in-law that they had only driven a short distance before the car he and his wife were in became stuck on a downed tree. Berriz realized that there was only one safe place nearby: the pool at the home they rented.

The couple made it back to the pool as the flames towered over them, consuming the house and all of the trees in the home’s yard. Berriz told family members that he held on to the brick at the edge of the pool, his hands burning as he kept himself afloat with his wife hanging on to him.

The couple kept themselves as immersed in the pool as possible to stay protected from the flames while still keeping their faces above the water level, getting what oxygen they could as the fire burned so intensely around them that it melted the patio furniture around the pool.

Tragically, Carmen eventually stopped breathing, dying as Armando held her in his arms. According to the Chronicle story, he told his daughter and son-in-law he kept holding Carmen for hours after she had passed.

Once the flames subsided, Armando finally let go, leaving Carmen at the steps of the pool before making his way down the hill, where firefighters found him.

According to the Chronicle, Armando was taken to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital where he was treated for serious burns. Firefighters notified the Berriz’s daughter Monica Ocon and son-in-law Luis, who rushed to the hospital to meet him and learn the sad news of Carmen’s death.

Berriz was taken to a burn unit at a Southern California hospital, the Chronicle said, but has since returned to the home in Apple Valley where he lived with Carmen to recover.

“They both made it through the worst of it,” the couple’s daughter Monica Berriz Ocon told the Chronicle. “That makes me so proud. They made it because they had each other’s strength.”

In an interview with CBS LA, Berriz Ocon fondly recalled her mother.

“Everybody loved my mom,” said Berriz Ocon told CBS LA. “She was very family oriented and kept us all together always.”

Her mom had always had respiratory problems, but Berriz Ocon said she fought for her life and her husband’s.

“She actually made it through the worst part of the fire,” said Berriz Ocon. “Her lungs just kind of gave out. The love they had for each other was something everybody has always admired and loved.”

Berriz Ocon told CBS SF on Friday she was with her father in Apple Valley at the family home, helping and comforting him on what she understandably said was a “difficult day.”

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