Luis Ocon tried to drive back to find them, but he could only make it halfway up. One, perhaps two houses down, Armando Berriz got stuck on a fallen tree. They fled the island nation separately in the 1950s, and exchanged letters and phone calls before marrying and settling in Southern California, where they raised their three children.
He turned to his wife and said they had to get back to the house. When Armando Berriz said to get in the water, she did.
Outside, the family made a panicked scramble to their cars.
He saw his in-laws get into the third car and take off behind him. They were surrounded by fire and smoke so thick that Luis Ocon could hardly see in front of him, so he drove by the feel of the tires on the reflectors that bumped like braille down the middle of the road.
At the bottom of the hill he stopped, then ran to his wife when she pulled up. When no one arrived, he sent his wife and daughter farther down the hill to safety. At the top of the hill, the Berrizes hadn’t made it far. Armando and Carmen Berriz had known each other for more than 60 years, since they were children in Cuba.
In the water, Armando Berriz kept them afloat by hanging onto the brick sides, which were hot as oven racks and burned the palms of his hands. They dipped as deep as they could get into the water, at times keeping only their noses and mouths, and Armando Berriz’s hands, exposed.
When his wife stopped breathing, Armando Berriz held her still.
They engulfed the house and all the trees around it.
The fire burned so hot it melted the chaise longues around the pool, and the wind whipped so hard that the furniture soared over their heads.
He held her for hours, he later told his daughter and son-in-law.
The flames had burned out, and the smoke was clearing, when he let go.
“Everything they did was as a team,” said daughter Monica Ocon in an interview Thursday, after the Sonoma County coroner’s office began to release names of some of the dead.
“They had this bond and this strength that literally lasted a lifetime.” The couple had been vacationing at a home on Crystal Court, at the top of a hill east of Highway 101 and above Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood, which would be devastated by the fires.
He walked 2 miles down the hill, past shells of houses and cars and the blackened stakes of trees, until he was found by firefighters who called his family and took him to safety.