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Claremont woman feels lucky to be alive

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com

Many Claremont residents experienced a scary night on January 21, but one woman is fortunate that it wasn’t her last.

Jennifer Sasaki, her husband Russ and son Noah were riding out the storm in the back house they share in the Village. The wind was intense and the power had already gone out when Sasaki decided to try to get some sleep.

She recalls internal negotiations: Should she sleep in her clothes in case the need arose to run, and maybe the back bedroom was not the best spot. At some point she sent a text to another son saying she was afraid a tree would fall on the house. Nonetheless, at some point she turned in for the night.

Around 1:30 a.m. a giant eucalyptus in the neighbor’s yard suddenly gave way, crushing the roof over the room where Sasaki slept, tearing away portions of two exterior walls, littering the bed with ceiling joists, plaster and insulation. The same tree severely damaged the bathroom, took down all the home’s power lines and destroyed a garage.

What exactly happened in the bedroom is still a bit unclear, but as the tree began to fall, Sasaki heard a noise, maybe the neighbor’s fence cracking, which shook her awake. It was pitch black, debris from the ceiling came raining down as she screamed, “Oh my god.” She rushed from the bedroom bleeding from the head with bruises and cuts to her legs, hands and body. Some injuries came from the falling debris while others from the rush to get out of the room.

“The first thing I remember, I was standing screaming and everything was falling on me and I was running, trying to get out the door but I was stumbling because there was stuff on the ground then too,” Sasaki said.

She made her way to the living room, where Noah called 9-1-1. When firefighters arrived they rendered first aid and an ambulance was called. But Sasaki opted to have her husband drive her to Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center where she received staples to close the cut in her head.

Once she got out of the emergency room, Sasaki went to her parents’ house in Palm Desert where her mother helped her shower and remove the debris still clinging to her hair. She recalls having cuts and bruises all over, including on her back and even the tops of her feet.

Nearly two weeks later Sasaki’s physical injuries are healing but she remains in a fragile emotional state.

“Hearing loud noises right now triggers me so much, because of the noise. That is the main thing I remember, the noise was so loud. And then the wind was coming through [the house] I thought I was going to die,” Sasaki said. “I don’t ever want to go through something like that again.”Now that some time has passed, she wonders what woke her up in time to get out of bed before the bulk of the roof came down.

“I must have heard something, the first noise or the crack of the fence. I can’t imagine if I did not have that second to get up. I am very grateful for that intuition for sure.”

The property owners, Wallace and Melanie Cleaves, live in the front house with his mother, Nickie Cleaves, but the wind was so loud that only Melanie Cleaves heard the tree come down.

“Living in Claremont for 35 years, I have never seen anything like that. Especially down here in the Village. We don’t tend to get wind like that,” Wallace Cleaves said.

The plan is to rebuild the back house, which is inhabitable for now. On Tuesday a structural engineer confirmed that the garage must be torn down.

Three members of the Sasaki family have temporarily relocated to a hotel in Costa Mesa where they can have their dogs with them, but they hope to return to the guest house once it’s rebuilt.

“We absolutely love it here. I feel really safe here. We love our landlords. We love the community. It has been such a place of joy for us and peace, safety and comfort. So I think that, too, is what makes it really hard. I have to work through this trauma in this place that I love to be able to stay. But I want to be able to do that.”

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