Remembering San Diegans Lost to COVID-19 in 2020

“The people who pass away with this are not just a number”

Almost every semblance of normalcy has been taken away from people across the globe in 2020 but there's no loss greater than the lives taken by a disease that was unimaginable a year ago.

Among the more than 1,300 lives lost in San Diego County this year were brand new fathers, longtime grandmothers, young daughters and devoted spouses. They were nurses and frontline workers, military veterans and hobbyists with undeniable passion.

Their deaths mean there are more than 1,400 families spending the holidays without their loved ones this year, at a time when the virus is taking lives at a rampant rate -- more than 70 people with the disease died in San Diego in the last week alone. Across the country, there are more than 340,000 families without their loved ones.

The first San Diegan to die from the virus was a man in his early 70s who was diagnosed after a trip to Hawaii. His death was reported on March 22, 2020, and by the time the month was through, eight others had died.

Coronavirus Deaths in Your City and State — and Across the US

These charts use daily coronavirus death data from Johns Hopkins University to show the seven-day moving average of deaths at the city, state and country level.

The impact of coronavirus varies enormously in the United States from one place to another.

Source: Johns Hopkins University. Data for San Diego also includes Imperial County.
Credit: Visuals by Amy O’Kruk/NBC, data analysis by Ron Campbell/NBC

To put faces to the numbers, NBC 7 wanted to tell the individual stories of the lives lost in 2020, to share the uninhibited joy they brought to others, their undeniable passion for their work, and their devotion to their families.

The daughter of a San Marcos man who died from the disease summed it up best: “The people who pass away with this are not just a number.”

Here, we honor the memory of just a handful of San Diegans we lost to COVID-19 this year, while we keep the hundreds of others taken by the disease in our hearts.

Robert Fria, 77

Robert Fria died of complications from COVID-19
Fria Family

By the time Robert Fria was 77, he had a long list of accomplishments: Vietnam Veteran, United Airlines Captain, husband, father, grandfather, author, and well-known car collector.

His favorite place was his garage, where his wife Joyce Fria says she can now feel his presence. During his retirement, Fria took his love of classic cars to the next level. He completely restored the first hardtop Ford Mustang to come off the assembly line. He put his research and knowledge into a book he authored called "Mustang Genesis: The Creation of the Pony Car." That book made him the go-to historian on all things Mustang. He became a consultant for the Ford Motor Company and the Henry Ford Museum. He was even invited onto the show of known-car enthusiast Jay Leno several times to talk about his passion.

But, Robert Fria's love of cars paled in comparison to his love for his family. "He was a great dad. He always made time for anybody," his daughter Nicole Wendell said. "He was very smart and, you know, outspoken which was great because nowadays you don't have that."

Robert Fria died on April 1, 2020, from coronavirus complications. He was one of five family members to become sick with the coronavirus after a family dinner. "Anyone he met, he was always interested in their life and about them," Joyce Frias said.

Luis Martinez, 41

A South Bay family is dealing with the tragic reality of just how deadly the coronavirus can be after Luis Martinez passed away from COVID-19 complications with the mother of his child unable to be by his side because of issues at the border.

In pictures and in videos, 41-year-old Luis Martinez couldn’t hide his elation at becoming a father. One photograph shows him forming heart-shaped hands to create a silhouette on his girlfriend Janeth Retana’s baby bump. In a video of the moment he found out Retana was pregnant, he burst into laughter while hugging her, saying, “amor.”

He was a banking employee and part-time ride-sharing driver in San Diego County.

Two weeks after his baby Luis Jr.’s April birth, he was admitted to the hospital with coronavirus. Luis spent at least eight weeks in the hospital, according to his family, most of that time intubated. The mother of his child was forced to remain in Mexico. Retana says she was denied entry at the border and claims that Customs and Border Protection officials didn’t call to verify her letter from the hospital, which would demonstrate her need to cross and visit before Luis died.

Martinez died a week later, three days before Father's Day.

Robert Mendoza, 43

Robert Mendoza in parachute gearYolanda Mendoza
Covid-19 victim Robert Mendoza standing in a field with a parachute

Robert Mendoza was a black belt and by all accounts a warrior with deep ties to San Diego's military community, both as a former Marine and as a business owner. Mendoza first moved to San Diego from Houston, Texas at the age of 17 to join the Marine Corps.

His father, also named Robert, said his son just wanted to serve his country and it was all he talked about from an early age. "He spoke about the Marines since he was little. He never spoke about anything else." Mendoza went on to become a parachute rigger with several combat missions abroad, before retiring as a staff sergeant in 2008.

His military service continued, this time as a civilian, when he started Tactical Defense Systems in Oceanside. Mendoza's parents said it was his passion, but also a way to stay flexible with his "best buddy," his 9-year old son.

The 43-year-old Marine veteran first told his family about symptoms, including a migraine headache and gastrointestinal issues, on April 10, 2020. Two days later on Easter Sunday, he tested positive for COVID-19. A day later he was hospitalized, but his condition worsened. He died seven days after being admitted and after just a few days on a ventilator.

"He served his country, went to war, and you would've thought through all the war, all the danger would've been behind him"

Yolanda Mendoza, Mother

"He served his country, went to war, and you would've thought through all the war, all the danger would've been behind him," his mother Yolanda Mendoza told NBC San Diego. "I just never thought my son would've gotten this because he was such a strong man."

Cassie Martinez, 29

A South Bay family is sharing how they tragically lost 29-year-old Cassie Martinez to the coronavirus, reports NBC 7's Melissa Adan.

Cassie Martinez was young and caring; she loved to travel and she was soon-to-be engaged, according to her boyfriend, Ricardo Ferreya. But that all changed when one day in September, she and several of her family members caught the coronavirus.

“We would always talk about having a little girl," said Ferreya. "We would talk about the name and it was just so many plans."

Martinez didn't have underlying health conditions, according to her family, doctors said her heart became inflamed due to the viral infection. She suffered multiple cardiac arrests while she was in the hospital. Then, she died of the disease on Sept. 26.

Dan Balsiger, 56

Before Dan Balsiger died from the coronavirus on July 8, 2020, he texted his friends to tell them to spread the word about the severity of the disease.

"[Dan] was like, 'Hey, this thing is real. It’s no joke, spread the word. Make sure to take care of yourself. Take care of the family,' and I’ll never forget reading those texts,” recalled his close friend, Randy Rechs.

Dan was like 'Hey, this thing is real. It’s no joke, spread the word. Make sure to take care of yourself. Take care of the family'

Randy Rechs, Close Friend

The Carmel Valley father of two had just returned from a business trip when he started developing symptoms and tested positive for COVID-19. Balsiger isolated himself from his family and saw a doctor via telecommunication but he said it felt like there was a brick in his chest.

"Once you start to feel better, somehow it attacks another organ," said his wife, Judy Balsiger. He never made it to the hospital before he died, leaving behind his wife of 22 years and two young girls with "a void that cannot be filled."

Esther Hernandez, 94

Esther Hernandez lived in a convalescent home with other senior patients. In order to protect the vulnerable senior population that lived there, Hernandez wasn't allowed visitors. That meant her granddaughter, Rebecca Niebla, had to see Hernandez through a window. When the convalescent home told the family Hernandez had tested positive for coronavirus, the family could only see her via FaceTime.

“She was struggling to breathe. It was very very hard for us to see that,” said Niebla. The very next day, Hernandez was dead. She was one of 14 people who had died, as of May 28, at the facility.

Ignacio Uribe, 53

NBC 7 Investigates has learned a shipyard worker died this week of COVID-19. NBC 7's Alexis Rivas has more.

What family will remember about Ignacio Uribe is friendly personality, his selflessness and his great sense of humor.

The virus has taken a disproportionate toll on communities of color and essential workers, like Ignacio Uribe, a father of two sons who was married for 26 years. Uribe was a shipyard worker at NASSCO. “Our family has been suffering,” said Amalia Uribe Deaztlan, Uribe’s aunt.

We never had the chance to say goodbye. They’re alone and they die alone... We cannot hold their hands when they die.

Amalia Uribe Deaztlan, Aunt

"Once he was intubated, we understood the situation was really bad," Uribe Deaztlan said, adding that the family is still in shock – they thought Uribe would beat the virus because of his age and because he had no underlying medical conditions.

"We never had the chance to say goodbye," says Uribe Deaztlan. “They’re alone and they die alone and the families cannot go, we cannot visit, we cannot see them, we cannot hold their hands when they die."

Derik Williams, 54

Photos of Derik Williams, who died of the coronavirus.
Williams Family
Derik Williams loved obstacle course racing and participated in races across the West Coast.

Derik Williams, of Chula Vista was a beloved Air Force veteran whose cheery smile was often seen at obstacle course races across the West Coast. His favorite thing was to find one of the slowest people on the Spartan course and help them get up that last mountain or carry that last sandbag. He was used to pushing his body to the limit while competing in Spartan races, but he was not able to defeat COVID-19.

“He was very tired, but he had no cough, no shortness of breath, nothing that would really say, 'hey, I have COVID,'” his fiancé Carol Althoff explained. She dropped him off at the hospital where he spent the next 10 days in the Intensive Care Unit. His final days were on a ventilator.

Many members of his obstacle course community held fundraisers and races in his memory. The said it was a way to show his children "how much their father was loved and how much he cared about people on the spartan courses.

“We got to say our, ‘I love yous’,” Althoff remembered. She’s grateful for that, knowing that many families did not get to say goodbye to their loved ones.

Carlos Dojaquez

It's been nearly nine months since Irma Dojaquez lost her husband to COVID-19, reports NBC 7's Amber Frias.

Carlos Dojaquez was married to his best friend, Irma, for 48 years before he died in April to the coronavirus and Irma barely knows how to go on without him. “You don’t even know how hard it hits you. Your mind wanders, your body does not react to your commands anymore. It debilitates you.”

Both started to show symptoms of COVID-19 in March, early on in the virus' spread in San Diego County. Irma Dojaquez recovered. Her husband didn't. Carlos Dojaquez was admitted into the ICU and the last conversation Irma recalls is her husband telling her he had tested positive for the disease.

He spent the next three weeks in a coma. "It got to a point when doctors told me he wasn't going to make it because his body was shutting down," Irma Dojaquez recalls.

This virus doesn't care what you believe, what your political view is, or what kind of person you are

Irma Dojaquez, Wife

She hopes that people will take the virus seriously, calling it like a "Russian Roulette."

“Nobody is exempt from this,” said Irma Dojaquez. “This virus doesn't care what you believe, what your political view is, or what kind of person you are; what ethnicity or what age -- It doesn't care.

Jerry Wilson, 63

NBC 7's Artie Ojeda heard a message from the man's family.

Jerry Wilson, a middle school health technician of Rancho Peñasquitos, had just found out he was going to be a fire-time grandfather. He flew to Texas in June to visit his son and daughter-in-law when they surprised him with the news.

But after Wilson returned home to San Diego in late June, he began to show symptoms of coronavirus a week later, first sneezing and congestion and eventually pneumonia. Wilson's wife, son and daughter-in-law eventually caught the disease, too, but Wilson was hospitalized. He died a month later.

“He was very kind. He was very loving. He was my best friend and we did everything together,” said his wife Judy Wilson.

Cathy Paulette Hamilton

NBC 7's Lauren Coronado spoke with her brother, who's sharing the family's story and a message to young people who could be putting their own loved ones at risk.

When Cathy Paulette Hamilton died from the coronavirus in October, Gaidi Finnie not only lost his sister, he lost his best friend and the woman he called the matriarch, "the keeper of the history in our family."

He said together, they lived through the 1960s riots in Newark, N.J., an experience that shaped their lives. And although they live apart for a while, they were close in heart.

Hamilton was a retired Delta Airlines employee, so she had undoubtedly traveled the world, but what meant to her more than anything else was family. Finnie suspects Hamilton contracted the disease at her son's birthday party and urges young people to take the virus seriously.

“My message would be to the young people who can recover from it is: Don’t kill off your aunts and uncles, and your parents and grandparents. It is super important that you protect them. You’ll never forgive yourself if you cause one of your family members to perish as a result of you being careless.”

Raul Martinez, 70

Raul Martinez died Sept. 20 from COVID-19.
Raul Martinez died Sept. 20 from COVID-19.

As a Vietnam veteran and a retired California Highway Patrol officer, serving was in Raul Martinez' blood. No one knew that better than his family -- four kids and nine grandchildren -- who said he took the virus very seriously. His daughter, Claudia Martinez, recalled only visiting her parents through a window. “I kind of wish I would’ve seen him or like given him a quick hug one of those quick times I stopped at my mom’s [house]. I don’t regret being safe, of course. It’s out of love, really,” she said.

Raul Martinez was born in National City, graduated from Sweetwater High School and married his middle school crush, Maria Martinez.

Despite their best efforts, he caught COVID-19 sometime in August. He went to the hospital and was released, but a week later started to have trouble breathing and was admitted to the ICU. “It was a roller coaster after that,” said Claudia Martinez. On Sept. 20, her father's health took a sharp turn for the worse and he passed away.

Claudia Martinez wishes she had more time with him, but unfortunately, her time was cut short.“My dad, he was the funniest guy. [He] loved family so much, loved his kids, loved his grandkids. He was very proud to be a CHP officer for close to 30 years and even though it was hard for him to talk about Vietnam, he was proud to be a veteran."

Blanca Ramirez, 54

To Brianna Romo, Blanca Ramirez was her hero. Her mother taught her how to overcome any struggle. "She was very energetic and she wouldn't let her autoimmune disease get to her, she would keep going with her life no matter what," said Romo.

But, unfortunately, the combination of her underlying health conditions and the coronavirus turned deadly. In June, Ramirez had a stroke. The 54-year-old mother was hospitalized and then diagnosed with COVID-19. "She was basically in a coma and needed a heart transplant, a lung transplant, her kidneys were failing and her organs were failing," Romo said.

Romo was called to be there at her mother's side as she took her last breaths. "I really wanted her to wake up," she said through tears. "I kept telling her just be strong and keep fighting. Don't give up."

On Nov. 1, 2020, Dia de Los Muertos, Romo paid tribute to her mother's legacy by placing her photo outside the County Administration Center as part of the Dia de Los Muertos tradition. "I want my mother's story to be heard, to be recognized and also remembered and not forgotten."

Hector Navarro Lopez, 52

A San Marcos father of four died from COVID-19, and his family said he had no underlying conditions and struggled to get medical attention, reports NBC 7's Melissa Adan.

Hector Navarro Lopez of San Marcos was the champion of his family. "“He was an inspiration," his daughter, Areli Noemi Navarro Arroyo, said. "He was someone I looked up to, and he was someone who made me feel safe." Navarro Lopez was originally born in Mexico and married his high school sweetheart Noemi Arroyo Ramirez before immigrating to California and starting a family. “He was a great husband, and not just because he passed away but because I would always say, 'If I [had] another life and I met him, I would be married with him again."

Navarro Lopez began to feel mild symptoms in late May and tried to go to a clinic in San Marcos, but the family says their father was turned away. He isolated at home instead, awaiting COVID-19 test results. Unfortunately, Hector's condition took a turn, and the next morning, Noemi called 911. The father of four was taken in an ambulance, in which, she said, he suffered a fatal heart attack.

What saddens the family is that Navarro Lopez wasn't seen as the loving, involved father he was. "The people who pass away with this are not just a number," Noemi said.

Martin Rodriguez, 53

Martin Rodriguez, 53, a professional wrestler known as “Espantito” or “The Terror” was known for entertaining crowds with his humor and stunts. The father of two was a well recognized professional wrestler and a beloved City Heights neighbor, but his last battle was one with COVID-19.

He was known as “Espantito” or “The Terror," a professional wrestler or luchador. But to family he was Martin Rodriguez. The father of two began wrestling at the age of 18. For decades his stunts would capture audiences around the world. He was part of Lucha Libre AAA Worldwide in Mexico and freelanced across other leagues in the United States and Canada. But his last battle was one with COVID-19.

Rodriguez tested positive for the coronavirus in September. “He started having trouble breathing and that’s when we realized he should go to ER,” his daughter, Barbara said. He was taken to Sharp Memorial Hospital and was diagnosed with pneumonia. After several days of being hospitalized, Martin's condition worsened and he was placed on a ventilator. On Oct, 12, at 53 years old, the beloved fighter took his last breath.

“I’m missing everything about him. I’m missing his jokes and the way he makes people laugh, the way he’s so spontaneous,” said Barbara. “Just everything about him." His daughter said his legacy will live with her forever, and she'll never forget what he taught her: that anything you set your mind to is possible.

Antonio Arellano, 80

NBC 7's Melissa Adan has the story.

Known to many as "Papa Tony," Antonio Arellano was beloved, outgoing and friendly and a man of giving. "He just loved life, loved to wear his cowboy hat," said his son Marco Arellano. The immigrant father was determined for his family to succeed in America. He was a hard worker who spent decades as a truck driver. Following his retirement, Antonio Arellano continued to give back to the South Bay community and traveled the world. His last journey was his fight against COVID-19.

On the 11th day of Tony's coronavirus diagnosis he was struggling to breathe. He was rushed to the hospital. "The doctor told us within four hours his whole kidneys, heart and his lungs were full of the virus and there was nothing they could really do about it," he remembered. Arellano had diabetes and high blood pressure. The beloved patriarch of the Arellano family passed on July 31.

"We told him, 'Hey dad, safe travels, say hi to our mom and you know, see you when we see you again,'" he shared.

If you have lost a family member to COVID-19 and are willing to share their story, send NBC 7 a message here.

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