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In Santa Rosa fire, woman dies in husband’s arms after jumping into pool

Carmen and Armando Berriz, of Apple Valley, were vacationing in Santa Rosa when the Tubbs fire broke out. Carmen Berriz, 75, died in the fire. (Courtesy photo)

ELOÍSA RUANO GONZÁLEZ,

Carmen and Armando Berriz turned in just before 11 p.m. Sunday after a day sitting by the pool and playing board games, unaware of the fiery blaze unfolding just over the ridge that ultimately would trap them.

The Southern California residents were vacationing with their daughter, Monica Ocon, and her family at a home on Crystal Court in Mark West Springs when the wind-fueled fire broke out late Sunday. Luis Ocon, their son-in-law, was still up when he noticed outside his window that embers were falling.

“I thought they were fireflies,” said Ocon, 53, of Salinas. “Then it registered. There are no fireflies out here.”

He bolted out of bed, waking his wife, who then ran to get her parents and 26-year-old daughter out of the house. As they raced to their cars, Ocon said he turned around to shut the front door and saw “a wall of fire” through windows at the rear of the house. Flames stretched 30 to 40 feet high.

Ocon took the lead driving down the winding road while his wife and daughter followed in a second car. His in-laws, who were from Apple Valley near Victorville, followed behind them, but didn’t make it far. Their car got stuck in a ditch, Ocon said.

Carmen Berriz, 75, trusted her husband of 55 years when he turned to her in the car and told her to run to the pool.

“She responded, ‘Let’s go,’ ” Ocon said, recounting the story his father-in-law shared in the hospital after suffering second- and third-degree burns. “They fought to survive. They said they were going to do everything they could to see their kids.”

Nearby, Arthur Tasman Grant, 95, and his wife, Suiko Grant, 75, sought safety in their underground wine cellar. After receiving an automated call to evacuate that night, longtime friend Dick Vogel had attempted to wake the Grants, who had lived on his street before moving a mile away to Sundown Trail four decades ago.

Vogel said his son eventually reached the couple, but the pair wasn’t able to flee after a tree blew across the driveway.

“They tried to leave but they couldn’t get out,” said Vogel, who barely escaped as the Tubbs fire roared toward his home on Donner Drive.

He said his friends’ bodies were found in the wine cellar, along with the remains of their dog, Lulu.

The fire also killed another one of Vogel’s neighbors — Sharon Rae Robinson, 79. The petite woman’s daughter searched for days before finally posting a Facebook message Thursday that her mother did not make it out of her home that night.

The search continues for victims of the deadly North Bay fires, which have claimed at least 41 lives, 22 of them in Sonoma County.

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There still are 53 reports of missing people, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office said Tuesday afternoon. Sheriff Rob Giordano said 200 search-and -rescue personnel are on the ground, including 100 from the National Guard.

Missing cases also have been divided by jurisdiction. Santa Rosa police are handling the 26 missing-person reports within the city limits, while the Sheriff’s Office is handling the 27 people reported missing in the unincorporated area. Santa Rosa Police Chief Hank Schreeder said an FBI search and rescue unit will be searching the Fountaingrove area.

Vogel said the fire moved at “lightning speed” toward his neighborhood, giving residents little time to react. He said all nine homes on his block burned to the ground, including Robinson’s home.

Robinson was a friendly but private person who lived alone, Vogel said. The woman liked to weave and was very artistic, he added.

Arthur Grant was a retired U.S. Navy and Pan American World Airways pilot, Vogel said. He flew with the airline for at least 30 years, said Vogel, who also retired as a Pan Am pilot and served in the Air Force. He said they used to like sitting on the patio to “compare notes.”

Grant’s wife liked to garden and previously sold some of the produce at the farmer’s market held at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building, Vogel said. Suiko Grant met her husband while he was on a layover in Honolulu, where she’d moved after growing up in Japan. They married and had two children. Their daughter, Trina Grant, posted on Facebook photos of her parents as a young woman and a man in uniform and fighter pilot wings. She wrote, “Dad I know you’re back flying a Corsair (fighter jet) again. Mom, you’ll always be the most beautiful woman in the world to me. Godspeed to you both.”

Rachael Ingram held out hope for a week of finding her friend, Mike Grabow, alive. They just celebrated his 40th birthday two weeks earlier, surrounded by dozens of friends and family. His father, Victor Grabow, came down from Boise, Idaho.

“He never met anybody that he didn’t like or that didn’t like him,” Grabow said of his son, an avid outdoorsman who loved hunting and fly fishing.

After friends did not hear from his son Monday, they frantically started searching shelters and hospitals and posting his picture online. Ingram, 28, followed every possible lead.

“I went to San Rafael. I went to Ukiah. I went to Bodega,” she said. “He would have done the exact the same thing for any of us.”

He and his 6-month-old French bulldog, Stax, didn’t make it far. They were found in Grabow’s family home on Michele Way, not far from where the Berrizes jumped into a pool.

Occasionally letting their mouths and noses emerge for air, Carmen and Armando Berriz tried to hold on. The winds that flung tree limbs into the pool died down, and the blaze started burning out. After nearly six hours under water, though, Carmen Berriz died in the arms of her childhood sweetheart, whom she first met as a 12-year-old living in Havana, Cuba. He stayed in the water next to her for nearly two hours before borrowing one of her shoes after losing his, to run from the burning hill.

Their love and devotion for one another is what kept the couple fighting to survive, Ocon said.

“Their love and devotion for the family is what’s keeping us going,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews. Staff writers Nick Rahaim and Mary Callahan contributed to this story.