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Husband, wife clung to each other in pool as fires raged. He survived, she didn't

(Image: CNN) (Image: CNN)

By The Associated Press

More than 30 people have died in the deadliest week of wildfires in California history. The victims include a couple who recently celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary, a woman born with a spinal defect who worked to help others despite her own troubles and a woman who died in her husband's arms as they sought safety in a backyard swimming pool.

A look at some of those who were killed in the blazes:

DIED IN HER HUSBAND'S ARMS

In the 55 years they were married, Carmen Caldentey Berriz had spent countless hours in her husband Armando's arms.

In his arms was where the 75-year-old took her last breath on Monday, as he held her afloat in a swimming pool as walls of fire burned around them, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Carmen had known Armando was the one since she was 12, and the two dated for years before marrying in 1962. By the time Carmen turned 75, their family had grown to include two daughters, a son, their children's spouses and seven grandchildren.

The Berrizes were three days into a vacation at a Santa Rosa rental house with family when son-in-law Luis Ocon woke early Monday morning and saw the fire begin to overtake the neighborhood.

They fled to their cars.

Luis, Monica Ocon, and their daughter made it through the thick smoke and flames and pulled over, watching for Carmen and Armando's car to emerge behind them. It never came.

Armando Berriz's car had gotten stuck on a fallen tree. He told his wife they had to run back to the house to take shelter in the backyard pool.

As flames melted the chaise lounges a few feet away, Carmen clung to Armando, who kept them both afloat by hanging onto the brick sides of the pool.

Armando Berriz held on for hours, even as the brick burned his hands, even as his wife stopped breathing. He let go only after the flames had burned out, laying Carmen on the steps of the pool with her arms carefully crossed over her chest.

He walked 2 miles to find firefighters.

"Everything they did was as a team," daughter Monica Ocon said. "They had this bond and this strength that literally lasted a lifetime."

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TIMID AND GIGGLY

At 14, Kai Shepherd was among the youngest victims of the wildfires.

After flames swept over a mountain, the Shepherds had tried to drive down to escape. Their neighbor Paul Hanssen found their two charred vehicles blocking the road, doors still ajar from when they had apparently abandoned them and fled on foot.

Hanssen found the mother, Sara Shepherd, and her 17-year-old daughter, Kressa, lying on the ground, more than half their bodies burned. Kai Shepherd was further down the mountain and did not survive.

First responders found Kai's father, Jon Shepherd, separately, on the mountain. He was also badly burned but alive. Kai Shepherd's parents and sister are being treated at burn centers.

His sister, Kressa Shepherd, a Ukiah High School junior, had to have both legs amputated beneath her knees.

Family friend Irma Muniz remembers Kai Shepherd was timid and giggly after she met him last year while shooting a Christmas card photo of the family posing in the woods of Redwood Valley, a community of about 1,800 roughly 70 miles (113 kilometers) north in Mendocino County

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'SHE WAS MY LIFE'

George Powell woke to a wall of fire already bearing down on his Santa Rosa home and immediately yelled to his 72-year-old wife, Lynne Anderson Powell: "Get out!"

Lynne Powell grabbed her border collie, Jemma, which always slept next to her, a laptop and asked for the best way to get off their mountain before jumping in her car.

George Powell left 15 minutes later after fetching his three dogs. George Powell now realizes when he raced down the mountain he drove past his wife's car that had gone off the road and into a ravine in the heavy smoke.

After searching for her all night and the next day, a detective called to tell him a body burned beyond recognition was found steps from her car. Inside was a dog also burned to death.

"If I had known, I would have gone down there with her, even if it meant I would have died with her," George Powell, 74, said. "I don't know how I'm going to cope. She was my life." He repeated: "She was my life."

The couple had been married for 33 years. He was a photojournalist and she was a professional flutist, spending much of her career playing for the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, which operated until 2011.

The two met while she was on vacation in Los Angeles, where George Powell freelanced for newspapers. He said it was "love at first sight" and he moved to New Mexico to be with her. After they retired, they settled in northern California so his wife could take care of her aging parents.

The two shared a love of border collies and entered in agility runs with their dogs. She was an avid quilter. The fire took everything, including her quilts and his life's photo archive.

Lynne Powell did not want a memorial service or obituary. But George Powell said he may hold a special lunch with friends to celebrate her life.

"I don't think I ever felt unloved or uncared for any second of my life with her," he said.

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TOGETHER IN LIFE AND DEATH

Charles Rippey, 100, and his wife, Sara, 98, are the oldest victims of the wine country wildfires identified so far.

Their bodies were found by one of their sons who had made his way past security and found the home in Napa where they had lived for 35 years completely gone. Only two blackened metal chairs, a porcelain tea set of white and soft washes of blue and other small remnants remained to testify to the couple's long life together.

Charles Rippey - who was known by his nickname "Peach" since he was a toddler - appeared to be heading to the room of his wife, who had had a stroke in recent years.

Mike Rippey said his father would have never left his mother. The couple met in grade school and recently celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary with their five children.

"Those of us in the family always would, you know, wonder what would happen if one of them died and the other one was still left because we knew that, you know, there's no way they would ever be happy whoever was the last one and so they went together," Rippey, 71, said as he stood among the charred ruins of their home.

The couple attended the University of Wisconsin and married in 1942 before Charles Rippey served as a U.S. Army engineer in World War II. He then became an executive with the Firestone tire company.

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DEDICATED TO HELPING OTHERS

Christina Hanson, 27, used a wheelchair and spent her life dedicated to helping others despite her own hardships, her family said.

Kelsi Mannhalter had posted on social media asking people to search for her cousin after the fire Monday ravaged Santa Rosa where Hanson lived.

Mannhalter later confirmed on Facebook that Hanson did not survive when the flames consumed her home.

"Just surreal," Manhalter posted. "I love you so much and am going to miss you sweet cousin. I can't say it enough."

Her father was found collapsed on the street in front of his home with third-degree burns and was taken to a hospital in San Francisco. Hanson had tried unsuccessfully to reach him as flames surrounded her apartment around 1:30 a.m. Monday, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Hanson was born with a spinal defect and lost her mother at 9 to lupus.

Still, her focus was always on others, her stepmother, Jennifer Watson, told the newspaper, describing her as "a very happy, social and positive person."

Hanson volunteered two days a week at an Alzheimer's residential care facility in Santa Rosa, where she would entertain residents.

She also taught herself sign language and interpreted for the hearing impaired.

"She loved helping people and loved her family," said Watson, who was with her stepdaughter the day before she died.

Her family wrote in an online obituary that Hanson "was granted her angel wings."

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ONE LAST PHONE CALL

Linda Tunis moved from Florida to the Journey's End Mobile Home Park in Santa Rosa to be closer to her family. When the northern California wildfires quickly overtook the park, the 69-year-old woman phoned her daughter.

She was trapped, she told her daughter, Jessica Tunis. She was surrounded by fire, and going to die.

Jessica Tunis screamed at her mom to run to safety, to flee the burning home.

"I was telling her I love her when the phone died," Jessica Tunis told the San Francisco Chronicle.

After three days of hope and dread, Jessica's brother Robert Tunis found his mother's remains in the debris where her house once stood.

Linda Tunis was spunky and sweet, Jessica Tunis said Wednesday. She was also fiercely independent, an attitude that wasn't dampened by her health problems. She had failing memory because of a stroke, and had lost the sight in one of her eyes because of high blood pressure.

She loved bingo and the beach, choosing to move California mostly because it brought her nearer to her close-knit family, Jessica Tunis said.

"My mother's remains have been found at her home at Journey's End. May she rest in peace, my sweet Momma," Jessica Tunis posted on Facebook earlier this week.

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A VERY KIND COUPLE

LeRoy and Donna Halbur were married more than 50 years when they died in their Santa Rosa home. They were both 80.

Fox 40 anchor Paul Robins posted on his Facebook page that he spoke to LeRoy Halbur hours before the fire swept the neighborhood.

"He had stopped by the house as our family was gathered celebrating my mom's birthday, bringing some of the last tomatoes from his garden," he wrote in his post.

Robins said LeRoy Halbur was an adventurous traveler who had recently given up globetrotting to look after his ailing wife.

Halbur helped found the Sonoma County branch of the Catholic charity St. Vincent de Paul and was a member of its board.

Jack Tibbetts, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul district council of Sonoma County, told the San Francisco Chronicle Halbur had a great sense of humor and a smile that reflected his compassion.

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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