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Flame and Fortune

Gary Rinfret
George Sakkestad

Since achieving his 15 minutes of fame, Gary Rinfret's life has been a chain of calamities.

By Clarence Cromwell

Gary Rinfret is upbeat for a guy who has lost almost everything. Rinfret basked in the limelight recently when a local TV station repeatedly ran a dramatic clip of him carrying a Los Gatos grandmother from her burning house, just before flames exploded through the building. Pearl Beck escaped the flames unharmed, but the house was destroyed.

The tape didn't show that Rinfret, who bolted from the fire scene before anyone could say thank you, has lost his own home, a car and his business during the past nine months and hasn't quite recovered from the combined ordeals.

Rinfret apparently doesn't want to complain about his luck--he would prefer to talk about the cars he soups up for a living rather than anything else. He starts with everyday BMWs and adds muscular engines, specialized suspension and high-performance steering packages to turn them into supercharged road rockets. He's looking for a new job now.

Asked to explain, Rinfret talks about his hard luck of the past nine months.

First, he and two partners shut down their failing San Jose auto shop about nine months ago because they just weren't making enough to pay the bills.

"We decided to close it down before we were in the hole big time," Rinfret said.

Rinfret was looking for a new job and getting by on backyard car repairs for buddies when he lost his car in February. County sheriff's deputies discovered his freshly restored 1973 BMW 2002 parked on the street in front of his house with no license plates. They decided to tow the car because Rinfret also had an overdue traffic ticket. Rinfret had spent 18 months restoring the car, except for the license plates.

Out of work, Rinfret couldn't pay for the tow, and within a week the tow company's storage bill escalated beyond any hope of recovering the car. The tow company kept it to cover the bill.

"I lost my baby--a year and a half's labor," Rinfret says. He shakes his head and laughs at his luck: "Ten miles." That's how far he drove the hot rod before it was hauled away.

The final blow came when Rinfret wasn't able to work because of the loss of his car. His roommate kicked him out of the house in Cupertino where he was living, and he still hasn't found a permanent place to live; he's shacked up with a pal in San Jose who was willing to trade a couple of months' rent for some work on his little red BMW 320.

Rinfret has found prospective places to live and to open another shop, but said he's officially still hunting. If he could find a cabin in the mountains for rent, he'd pay his way by fixing the place up, he said.

After all that, Rinfret didn't think twice about dashing to Beck's rescue when her second-story flat caught fire May 25. Rinfret was on his way to Carry Nations in Los Gatos, driving a borrowed car, to meet a friend.

Spotting smoke, he pulled over to watch a house burn at Blossom Hill Road and University Avenue. Then he looked up and there was Beck, leaning out a second-story window like the archetypical damsel in distress. She started to call weakly for help as smoke poured out of the window around her, Rinfret recalled.

He jumped onto a porch roof, hoisted Beck through the window and then went into the burning house to look for her husband, who was actually out of the house on an errand; the husband returned, and bystanders shouted for Rinfret to get out of the house.

Beck lost her home and most of her possessions in the fire, but said she was grateful that Rinfret sprang to her aid that Sunday afternoon.

"God bless him."

She phoned Rinfret a few days after the fire to express her gratitude.

Rinfret shrugs the whole thing off.

"Sometimes life gives you a situation where you don't have time to think," he said. "You just have time to do. I didn't think much of it until everybody started making a big deal out of it.

"I feel sorry for the Beck family," he added. "I mean here's people who have worked hard their whole lives, and it just gets taken away from them."

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From the June 12-18, 1997 issue of Metro.

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