Stephen Ellison

CHP Chopper Rescues Family From Wildfire in Two Daring Shifts

Pepe Tamayo knew it was a life-or-death moment for his family

An emotional reunion took place at Napa's airport Wednesday night. But it almost didn't happen.

Pilot Pete Gavitte was flying his CHP chopper Sunday night toward Atlas Peak and saw what he said "looked like a nuclear bomb going off." Gavitte and partner Whitney Lowe raced to the rescue and spotted the Tamayo family below with no way out. Pepe Tamayo knew it was a life-or-death moment.

"Either get out or get cooked," was how he described it.

But there was a catch: The Tamayos are a family of five, and the helicopter could only fit four people. Pepe insisted he be the one left behind.

"It felt like we were on the Titanic, and Pepe was using us as a lifeboat, and his feet were already wet, and he's saying take my family and go," Gavitte said.

Pepe's son Jesse, his wife Graciela and her parents were safe as he stood alone surrounded by fire.

"I called my daughter, and I said if I don't see you again, remember I love you. And that was it," he said.

Pepe then headed for a nearby reservoir to avoid the flames. When the CHP chopper came back, Gavitte and Lowe at first couldn't see Pepe.

"When we returned to that landing zone, Pepe was gone, and my heart dropped," Lowe  said.

Eventually, they spotted him.

"I grabbed him by the back of his red shirt, and said, 'Sir, we're leaving; you're coming with us.' It was ugly. It was close; it was really close," Lowe said,

The Tamayos' house burned to the ground Sunday night. On Wednesday, Pepe went back to see what happened and search for his dog he'd left inside his truck. He found the dog, alive and well.

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