Armando Berriz remembers the first time he saw his wife Carmen.
It was a lifetime ago in Cuba, as his son-in-law Luis Ocon tells the story: “He said, ‘When I was 13 I saw her for the first time, and I knew at that moment we were going to be together.'”
He was right. Since then, they never left each other’s side, even as they escaped Fidel Castro’s revolution. They married in Florida and spent the next 55 years traveling the world , keeping their family close. On their final night together, they were with their daughter Monica Ocon, Luis Ocon and the couple’s daughter at a Napa County mansion, laughing, talking and playing board games.
Their last game had been Sorry! Carmen was the victor.
Then the fire drew closer. It was time to go.
The five dashed out of the home into three vehicles.
“Everything was engulfed in flames,” Luis said. “The house across the street was already like a bonfire.”
But as the caravan made its escape, Armando and Carmen were soon stranded. They had tried to follow in their sedan, but debris in the roadway trapped the car.
“The tires were spinning but they weren’t going anywhere,” Luis said.
The car eventually broke down amid the thick smoke and chaos, leaving them separated from their family.
Armando grabbed Carmen and said they had to get to the pool. She immediately followed him. They spent the next six hours there, him clutching the poolside so hot that it burned his hands. He gripped it so he could push himself and Carmen underwater.
At times, the heat was so intense they kept only their lips and noses above water to breathe. When they went up for air, they prayed together, Luis said.
Meanwhile, their family tried to find them, traversing roads so choked by smoke that only the center divider was visible. Monica and the couple’s daughter went to a friend’s house, while Luis drove back. He said there was so much fire and debris, he couldn’t make it all the way there. He flagged down a fire engine, which also couldn’t make it.
At the pool, Carmen fainted. Armando held her for two hours before encountering a fire crew. Carmen never recovered.
Luis and Monica had spent the night searching area shelters and hospitals for their in-laws. Eventually, Luis got a text message from one of the firefighters who had tried to save the Berriz’s: get to the hospital “NOW.”
When they arrived, the firefighters helped Armando inside and told Luis about his mother-in-law.
“(He told me) when he was with my mother in law, she is what kept him alive,” Luis said. “When she died, his three kids were what kept him alive.”
As the family grieves, Armando was “their rock,” Luis said, but they can tell he is hurting as well.
“These were people all about love.”