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They survived 6 hours in a pool as wildfire burned their neighborhood to the ground

  • Author: Robin Abcarian, Los Angeles Times
  • Updated: October 13
  • Published October 12

John and Jan Pascoe survived the firestorm Monday morning by running out of their home and into their neighbors’ swimming pool in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Jan Pascoe and her husband, John, were trapped. The world was on fire, and Jan was hyperventilating from fear. Then they remembered their neighbors' pool.

"You've got to calm down, Jan," she told herself. "You can't go underwater and hyperventilate."

At 12:40 a.m. Monday, Jan called 911. She reached a dispatcher.

"We are going to get into the neighbors' pool, should we do this?"

The dispatcher said, "Get anywhere safe."

"Please. We will be in the pool," Jan replied. "This is where we are."

"In my naivete, all night long," she would tell me later, "I thought someone would come to get us."

Jan, 65, and her husband, John, 70, debated when to get in. She wanted to right away, but John said, "Hold off. The water's cold. Let's see what happens."

As they stood at the edge of the pool, the neighbors' house caught fire. A big tree next to the pool went up in flames. The railroad ties framing the concrete steps leading to the pool ignited.

"The heat was 'whoa,' " John said. He stripped off his pants and jacket, and wearing only a T-shirt, turned to Jan and said, "Jump in now."

She was wearing a thin tank top and lightweight pajama bottoms. Her glasses had disappeared.

They submerged themselves in the blackened, debris-filled water. They had grabbed T-shirts to hold over their faces to protect themselves from embers when they surfaced for air.

They moved to the part of the pool farthest from the house. John was worried about having to tread water, or hanging on to the side, which could be dangerous with all the burning objects flying around. Blessedly, the pool had no deep end. It was about 4 feet deep all the way across.

To stay warm, they held each other. They stood back to back. They spoke about their deep love for each other and their family.

Jan watched the moon for clues about time passing. It didn't move.

She waited for the house to burn to the ground, for the fire to pass so they could warm themselves on the concrete steps. The wind howled and the sound of explosions filled the air. Propane tanks? Ammunition? They had no idea.

"I just kept going under," she said. It was the only way to survive. "And I kept saying, 'How long does it take for a house to burn down?' We were freezing."

She had tucked her phone into her shoe at the pool's edge. When she saw it next, it had melted.

At bedtime, there had been no hint of the conflagration to come.

Around 10 p.m. Sunday, Jan had walked out onto the deck of the home she and John, an artist and retired wine broker, had built in the hills above Santa Rosa. She wanted to look at the moon, and check on her tomato plants. It was a beautiful October night. The sky was clear.

She took a shower, and when she got out, she smelled smoke. John went outside and thought he saw fire, but it was just the moon rising.

"We'd experienced fire before," said Jan, who retired from Sonoma Country Day School in June. "But the issue always was, how far away is it?"

At that point, according to her phone, it was 11 miles away. They'd received no official alerts.

They got into bed.

Their older daughter, Zoe Giraudo, called from San Francisco. Her father-in-law's home in Napa Valley's Silverado neighborhood had burned down. That was 40 miles from the Pascoes. "I think you guys should evacuate," Zoe said.

Maybe she was right. No need to panic, but just to be prudent, John grabbed towels and gently wrapped two Dale Chihuly glass bowls that he inherited from his mother and put them in his Toyota Tacoma truck. He took some of his paintings.

A couple hours later, the wind kicked up ferociously. It felt like a dry hurricane.

Soon, the Pascoes would be facing a choice no one should ever have to make: Do we freeze or do we burn?

Zoe called again at midnight: "You guys need to get out."

"I looked out the window," Jan said, "and all I saw was a red glow. I said, 'John, we've got to get out of here.' "

She scooped up their 17-year-old cat and ran to her Mercedes-Benz sedan. John got in his truck. They drove down their long driveway to Heights Road.

"It was a wall of flames," Jan said. They drove back up and parked next to their 1,800-square-foot house. When Jan opened her car door, the cat leaped out and has not been seen since.

Their mountaintop home was built like a boat with small rooms on 11 levels. It was filled with dozens of John's paintings. Each room was designed to remind them of places they'd encountered during their travels. One had tatami mats, an idea from a restaurant in Bangkok. Their bedroom was inspired by a house they'd rented on Thailand's Ko Samui Island. Their expansive decks, the site of countless parties over nearly four decades, offered spectacular views of the hills.

Wind-driven flames were closing in.

"We were in survival mode," Jan said. "What are we going to do? What are we going to do?"

Firefighters watch a fire burn along the slope on Highway 29 in Calistoga, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

I met the Pascoes on Wednesday evening at Zoe's house in San Francisco's Marina neighborhood. They were clean and composed, a handsome couple in borrowed clothes.

They sat side by side on an overstuffed couch, holding hands, recounting the night they could have died. Occasionally, John's eyes filled with tears. The depth of their loss had not quite sunk in.

The only physical hint of their trauma was the color of Jan's feet, still soot-stained despite a perfect pedicure. Jan wore a cozy, soft sweatshirt, and shivered. "We can't get warm," she said.

On Sunday night, Zoe, 38, and her sister, Mia, 32, had spent excruciating hours on the phone _ with each other, hospitals, shelters, friends and relatives.

At 7 a.m. Monday, Zoe looked at her husband and said, "Do you think they are gone? Do you think I need to prepare myself for this?"

An hour and a half later, they got word that their parents had survived.

"We started sobbing," Mia said.

"I started screaming," Zoe said. "The first thing mom said to me was 'I feel so bad I wasn't able to get ahold of you.' 'You're apologizing to me? After all you've been through?' "

At first light, the Pascoes had been in the pool for about six hours. When the worst seemed to be over, John slipped Jan's melted shoes onto his feet as best he could and picked his way up the hill to see their house. It was gone.

All his paintings. The Chihuly bowls. Everything.

When I made my way to their house Wednesday, I saw their burned-out car and truck sitting on rims. I drove about a third of a mile to their neighbors' house and saw the pool from the driveway. The whole scene looked like the aftermath of the apocalypse. The childproof fencing was in tatters. The water looked toxic. At the far end of the pool, on the decking, a life-size statue of a cherubic angel made it through the conflagration unscathed.

The Pascoes had no idea how widespread and destructive the Tubbs fire had been. Entire neighborhoods had been laid to waste between their home and Highway 101, a distance of about five miles.

John was naked but for the T-shirt he wore when he jumped into the pool. His clothes had blown away. He fashioned Jan's tank top into a loincloth. "I made a diaper out of it," he said.

Jan wore her pajama bottoms and the T-shirt she'd draped over her head.

Their faces were sooty. Their blondish gray hair was blackened and matted from all the soot and ash. It was about 55 degrees. They were wet, cold and barefoot. But they were alive.

"We held hands," John said, "and walked out."

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