Carmen Caldentey Berriz was 18 when she left her native Cuba in 1959, shortly after Fidel Castro and his guerrillas took control of the island and entered Havana.
It was in Havana where she at the age of 12 first met Armando Berriz, a 13-year-old boy she’d one day marry after settling in Miami. They lived just blocks apart in the desirable Nuevo Vedado neighborhood and hung out at the beach, where they’d swim, picnic and play volleyball with their group of friends they called “el club,” said their eldest daughter, Carmen T. Meissner.
The childhood sweethearts managed to stay in touch after Armando Berriz was sent abroad to a New York military boarding school and later went to Villanova University in Philadelphia. He’d visit her during the summer. After she fled to Miami with her family, he’d drive nearly 1,200 miles each way just to see her until they married in 1962, said their youngest child, Armando J. Berriz, 49.
“They kept in love, in touch and fervently dedicated to each other,” said Meissner, of Agoura Hills just outside of Los Angeles. “Even Fidel could not stop them.”
Carmen Berriz, 75, died in her husband’s arms, after spending hours submerged in a pool, attempting to escape the wind-whipped flames in October’s firestorm.
The Southern California couple was vacationing with daughter Monica Ocon and her husband, as well as their 26-year-old daughter at a home on Crystal Court in Mark West Springs when the fire erupted late Oct. 8. They already had gone to bed when son-in-law Luis Ocon, who stayed up late reading, noticed outside his window falling embers. He initially mistook them for fireflies.
The family raced out to their cars as the fire rushed toward the vacation home. Luis Ocon, 53, of Salinas took the lead driving down the winding road with his wife and daughter following closely behind in a second car, all unaware his father- and mother-in-law never made it down the road. Their car got stuck in a ditch.
As the fire raged around them, the Berrizes, who lived in Apple Valley near Victorville, returned to the vacation rental, jumping into the pool where they’d spent the night earlier, swimming and lounging with their family. Carmen Berriz held tightly to her husband, who gripped the blazing edge of the brick pool, keeping them afloat as they occasionally surfaced for air.
They prayed and thanked each other for the adventurous life they led, and they talked about their three children and seven grandchildren. They wanted to see them, again, so they fought to stay alive, their son-in-law said.
“Firefighters never showed up,” Ocon said. “They were trying but couldn’t get up there.”
After nearly six hours, Carmen Berriz took her last breaths. Her husband stayed with her at least two hours after she died of smoke inhalation, cradling her as the fire that surrounded them started to burn out.
“You could not think about Armando without her. You couldn’t think of Carmen without Armando,” their son-in-law said. “They’re an example of what couples should be like.”
The Berrizes traversed the globe together, visiting countries like Cambodia, China, Iceland and Vietnam. Berriz, worked 26 years for United Airlines’ governmental affairs department before retiring as executive secretary about six or seven years ago. For her 50th wedding anniversary, she organized an Alaskan cruise for the whole family.
The Press Democrat remembers the 40 lives lost in the North Bay fires. Click here for more of the stories.