With firefighters’ help, Santa Rosa family recovers fallen soldier’s military belongings lost in fire

Of the many things Stephanie Okrepkie left behind in the predawn rush to flee from the Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa, a cherished dog tag that her father, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Ottolini, wore when he died serving in Iraq ?13 years ago hurt the most.

With just minutes to flee from her Coffey Park home, Okrepkie, 41, grabbed her toddler son, Tillman, while her husband, Jeff, 38, took their two dogs, some photo albums and a duffel bag of clothes in a separate car as flames rampaged through the neighborhood.

Arriving at her brother Darrell Ottolini’s house in the Forestville area about 2 a.m. Oct. 9, Stephanie quickly realized the memorabilia of her father that she had left behind: along with mementos of happier times, the dog tag and the carefully folded U.S. flag given to her at his funeral.

“My heart just dropped to my stomach,” Stephanie recalled. “I don’t have anything. I have nothing to hold onto.”

The Okrepkies’ rented home in Coffey Park was among the more than 1,300 dwellings burned to the ground in the northwest Santa Rosa neighborhood. Inside were photos and uniforms of Michael Ottolini, who was killed in 2004 by a roadside bomb.

He was the third Sonoma County casualty following the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

“The look on her face was heartbreaking,” Jeff Okrepkie said. The couple, together for seven years, married in April.

But the story of profound loss changed almost magically when the dog tag, burned a dark reddish-brown with the lettering mostly obliterated, emerged like a Phoenix from the fire, thanks to Jeff and the help he got from a host of firefighters.

Ten days after the outbreak of the Tubbs fire, the most destructive in state history, Jeff got back into Coffey Park, driving in behind a Santa Rosa Fire Department ladder truck commanded by an old friend, Capt. Jon Aarsheim.

The crew of Ladder Truck 2 began helping Jeff sift the ashes of his house, focusing on the spot where the dog tag had been stored in a jewelry box atop a bedroom dresser. Firefighters from Rio Nido, who had retrieved the wedding ring of the wife of one of their own members, offered to help.

They were soon joined by a team led by Los Angeles Fire Battalion Chief Dean Zipperman, bringing to more than 20 the number of firefighters combing the ashes on Espresso Court.

“It was surreal,” said Jeff Okrepkie, who took photos of the firefighters, complete strangers, searching for small objects in a mass of destruction.

They found the dog tag, two commemorative coins, a bracelet and bronze plaque, all mementos of Michael Ottolini’s sacrifice for his country. The most remarkable find, however, was the cloth remnants of the American flag presented to Stephanie at her father’s funeral with full military honors at Pleasant Hills Memorial Park in Sebastopol.

It was a scorched black mass, not readily identifiable as a flag, discovered as the men searched the spot where it had been stored in a triangular box atop a china hutch in the dining room.

Stephanie wept when her husband came back with the scorched and charred remembrances of her father, a hay truck driver who attended El Molino High School in Forestville, where he met her mother, Sharon. Michael Ottolini spent 27 years in the same Santa Rosa-based Army National Guard unit in which his father, World War II veteran Daniel Ottolini, had served.

“It feels like I have a piece of him,” she said, holding the dog tag this week and wiping away a tear. “He’s always with me, but (it helps) knowing that not everything was lost in the fire.”

“It was a pretty moving moment,” Aarsheim said, recalling the recovery mission for Jeff, a former fraternity brother at Arizona State University

“It meant the world to me to try to find what we were looking for,” Aarsheim said, admitting he had quietly felt there was no chance of success.

Today, the Okrepkies, who are staying with Jeff’s father, Windsor Councilman Bruce Okrepkie, plan to celebrate Tillman’s second birthday a day late and possibly attend a Veterans Day event.

Friday was a poignant day for Stephanie and her family.

Nov. 10 is the day Michael Ottolini was killed in a roadside bomb attack while heading out on patrol in a Humvee from his base at Camp Anaconda, 50 miles north of Baghdad. It is also the date, exactly 11 years and one hour later, of Tillman’s birth.

For years, Nov. 10 was an unwelcome horror for Stephanie, compounded by its juxtaposition with Veterans Day, the national holiday that honors all who have served in the U.S. armed forces, now numbering 20 million living veterans.

At first, she and her mother would try to leave town, “get away from everything,” Stephanie said.

“It was always a tough period for her,” Jeff said, recalling his wife would “cry at the drop of a hat.”

Tillman’s arrival leavened the date with joy. For his first birthday, Stephanie had a professional photographer take a picture of Tillman sitting next to a photo of his grandfather.

“It’s still hard and so emotional, but now with Tillman we have a happier occasion,” she said.

The family’s flight from their neighborhood amid the firestorm was a frantic experience not unlike the escapes that thousands of others were forced to make that night.

The couple had been awakened about 1:30 a.m. by a call from Bruce Okrepkie, saying he was evacuating from Windsor and headed their way.

A while later a neighbor confirmed that flames had bounded over Highway 101 and were consuming Coffey Park homes. “We freaked out,” Jeff said.

Stephanie grabbed a tank top from a bachelorette weekend and a T-shirt she made for Tillman’s first birthday bearing the word “Mom” and Mickey Mouse ears. In hindsight, she said she was glad to have saved it.

Jeff stuffed a few more things into the duffel bag, and they fled as burning embers hurtled through the air and a bright orange glow shone in the rearview mirror.

“Everything else is gone,” Stephanie said.

Jeff said he’s amazed by acceptance of the loss of so many material possessions. “You just stop caring about things that are unimportant when they’re gone,” he said.

The house belonged to her uncle, so they have no rebuilding worries. Jeff, an insurance agent, and Stephanie, a legal assistant, are considering another rental home or apartment or a continued stay at his father’s house.

At some point, they hope to get back to a place like Coffey Park, where they enjoyed a suburban idyll: kids playing on a safe cul de sac, block parties, yard sales and dinners with neighbors.

The dog tag and other mementos will be placed in a display box on the wall of their future home, with the flag in a separate protective container.

The loss of her father will never fade away, Stephanie said. Father and daughter chatted via webcam a few days before he died.

“There’s not a day that goes by I don’t think of my dad. I want to call him and tell him something. It still hurts. I miss him every day and I wish he was still here.”

“But you find ways to move on and not dwell on the pain,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or On Twitter @guykovner.

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