As wildfires continue to ravage thousands of acres in northern California – taking with it homes, businesses and land – tales of heroism have emerged as a tragic silver lining to the devastation.
While he was flying rescue missions through billowing smoke, California Highway Patrol helicopter pilot Pete Gavitt came upon five members of Pepe Tamayo’s family.
But he only had room in the chopper for four.
Tamayo insisted that the rest of his family – his wife, Graciela; their 7-year-old son, Jesse; and her parents, both in their 70s – get in the helicopter while he stayed behind.
“So I told these guys, ‘Please, take my family,’” said an emotional Tamayo in an interview. “I called my daughter, and I told her, mi’ja, if I don’t see you again, remember I love you.”
“I was crying, and my son, he was crying too,” Graciela, his wife, said. “And he was saying, ‘Mom, if dad doesn’t make it, don’t worry. I’m going to take care of you.'”
Pepe waited as the fires closed in on him. Rescue pilots made two more trips before finally finding the man. Once they did, flight officer Whitney Lowe was not about to let him slip through his fingers again.
“I grabbed him right above his left chest on a shirt and said, ‘You’re coming with me,'” Lowe said.
The family’s reunion was an emotional one, but Pepe reaffirmed his decision.
“What else can I do,” he said. “I had to save them first.”
There is plenty of heroism to go around in California today.