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Couple Married 55 Years Jump in Pool to Survive California Fire; She Dies in His Arms

Raging wildfires forced an elderly couple to jump into a pool to escape the superheated air as their rented house burned — with the husband cradling his dying wife in his arms, a relative said.

Armando Berriz, 76, and his wife of 55 years, Carmen, 75, were on vacation in wine country with their daughter, their son-in-law and a grandchild and had three beautiful days together before the fire moved closer last Monday.

"That evening, we were playing games and we were by the pool about 10:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.," said the Berrizes' daughter, Monica Berriz Ocon. "We were in the jacuzzi enjoying the evening. There was no trace of smoke or any haze. We couldn't smell anything."

Image: Carmen and Armando Berriz
Carmen and Armando Berriz. Courtesy Berriz family

A few hours later, Ocon's husband woke her, saying he smelled smoke. They looked out the windows of their rented home and saw a slight glow over a nearby ridge.

"I wasn't too terribly concerned," Ocon said. "As I walked towards my parents' room, which was on the other side of the house, I contemplated whether or not I should wake them up, because it didn't seem like such an issue, so I walked back to the bedroom.

"As soon as I got back to the bedroom, there was fire [that] had started on my side of the house and, embers were flying crazy," she said.

Ocon went to alert her parents, but the fire was moving swiftly and unimpeded right for their house.

"It literally happened within a minute's time. It was violent and very aggressive," she said. "I proceeded to wake up my daughter, told her to get up. She had only enough time to grab a towel to cover herself, and we all got in our cars."

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The family broke up into three cars and tried to roll down the street to safety, but the elder Berrizes got separated when the caravan tried to turn around — the couple, now alone, ended up back at the house where the only safe place was the pool.

"He said, 'We need to get to the pool.' He says God gave him that idea," Ocon said. "He and my mom grabbed each other's arms, hands, and they ran to the pool. It was the only thing that was not aflame — it was the only path he had, and he went there with my mom, and they jumped in."

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Ocon estimated that the pair spent five to six hours keeping themselves submerged, coming up only for air.

"My mother fought hard," she said. "She did not have the stamina that my father had, and they were together the whole time. She slowly lost strength, and it was a blessing. She passed away in my father's arms peacefully."

Ocon added: "We can draw conclusions as to how she passed. It could've been the smoke inhalation or the cold of the pool, hypothermia. We don't really know just yet, but what we do know is that it was a peaceful passing."

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Armando Berriz clung to the edge of the pool to keep them both afloat, causing second-degree burns. The couple, who were childhood sweethearts, immigrated to the United States from Cuba to build a life and a family together.

"Their main focus was family and unity and the strength of the family and the strength of how, together, we can always accomplish anything," Ocon said. "Nothing was impossible with them."