Among the survival stories that have trickled out from the terrifying early hours of the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, a common element emerges in a few stories of near disaster older married couples, trapped by the fire, who found safety in their swimming pools. Two of these stories end happily; one does not.
Yesterday we learned of Daniel and Cindy Pomplun, a couple in their 50s who jumped into their pool after fire surrounded their rural Santa Rosa home, staying submerged in 40-degree water for 90 minutes as flames consumed their home and tore across their property, breathing through a washcloth and only coming up for air as necessary. After the fire passed, and after drying their clothes on the hot rocks surrounding the pool, they evacuated on foot over a mile and a half.
The LA Times has the equally harrowing story of Jan and John Pascoe, aged 65 and 70 respectively, who ended up spending six hours in their neighbors' pool while both their neighbors' and their own homes burned to the ground in the hills above Santa Rosa, unable to get down their road with their cat and a few belongings due to a wall of flames. The Pascoes had called 911 and assumed, naively, that someone would come to their rescue while they waited in the frigid waters. Jan Pascoe's cellphone, which she had tucked in a shoe at the pool's edge, melted. Eventually they also made their way out on foot, their daughters Mia and Zoe, one of whom was in San Francisco, panicking all night long. “We held hands,” John tells the LAT, “and walked out.”
Then, a story with a far less happy ending comes to us from the Chronicle. Carmen and Armando Berriz, a Cuban-American couple married for 55 years, were on vacation with their daughter and son-in-law in a rented house on the hillside above the Fountaingrove neighborhood in Santa Rosa. They had a lovely weekend as a family, tasting wine and swimming in the backyard pool, only to be awoken by the already aggressive Tubbs Fire around 1 a.m. Monday. In three cars, their daughter Monica Ocon, son-in-law Luis Ocon, the Berrizes and a grandaughter all headed down the hill to escape. The Ocons and their daughter made it to the bottom, but the Berrizes' car was stopped by a fallen tree, and they were forced to turn back. Armando Berriz, 76, told his wife, age 75, that they needed to go back and seek safety in the pool.
Armando Berriz describes flames that reached 30 feet high, engulfing the house and melting the patio furniture. He held his wife, staying as submerged as they could in the pool, with just their noses and mouths above water at times, gripping the sides of the scorching hot rocks at the pool's edge to the point that his hands were seared. At some point, over the course of several hours, Carmen Berriz stopped breathing.
Daughter Monica said her mother had always had problems with her lungs, and it was her lungs that failed her in the end.
Armando Berriz suffered smoke inhalation and spent the night in a burn unit, but his son-in-law tells the Chron, "he's unbelievably strong."
Carmen Berriz had worked for United Airlines for 26 years after marrying Armando in Miami in 1962. The couple had lived in California most of their lives, and had traveled much of that time. As the family tells the Chronicle, this year alone the couple had been to Iceland, Vietnam, Cambodia, and several places in Europe.
Luis Acon tells the Chronicle, “She was an incredible mother, a phenomenal friend, a mentor to the family. She was the glue that held everybody together. She was my wife’s best friend.”