Robin Sassenberg was searching her computer for photos for her son’s upcoming memorial service when an alert on her phone warned that her house could be in the path of a dangerous tornado.
Soon the monster — one of 15 twisters the National Weather Service confirmed for the Dayton area — was attacking the four-bedroom, 1926 house she and her husband, Chris, moved into 32 Valentine’s Days ago with their six kids.
Mere moments before the tornado hit, the couple carried their two dogs, Mini and Cooper, to the basement. Two of their three cats, Henry and Alice, came along.
The third, Slim Shady, was outside when the tornado struck.
With winds up to 170 mph, the 19-mile-long twister lasted 30 minutes.
And yet it was far from the most horrific thing Robin Sassenberg and her family had experienced in recent days.
Robin said the tornado’s damage cannot measure up to the tragedy of losing her son Fletcher Austin just days before the storm. Fletcher, 34, was waiting for a liver transplant in St. Louis.
His memorial service will be June 22 at Baker-Hazel Snider Funeral Home. Austin is also survived by a twin sister and other siblings.
No, the tornado could not compete.
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“I didn’t think I would survive losing Fletcher, and I did,” Robin said. “This is nothing. It does not compare to losing a kid.”
Despite the back-to-back tragedies, the Dayton resident says she has reason to be thankful and wants to help others.
Surviving the storm
Trees were uprooted and glass shattered all around the Sassenbergs’ neighborhood in the last moments of Memorial Day, May 27.
The longtime owners of the Trolley Stop in Dayton’s Oregon District live on Hillsdale Avenue just off one of the hardest-hit parts of North Dixie Drive.
The tornado carved its way through the neighborhood, obliterating a strip mall and businesses that include the barbershop where Chris has gotten his hair cut for years.
The tornado ebbed between EF-3 and EF-4 as it traveled from Brookville to Trotwood, to Harrison Twp. to Dayton and then on to Riverside. It ripped the roof from the bedroom where Chris had been sleeping minutes before.
Chris had been reluctant to get up, thinking it was just another storm.
Robin was persistent and Chris arose. He watched lightning from the porch for a few minutes and began to see why his wife was so worried.
The Sassenbergs went to the TV. They say the urgency and concern in WHIO Chief Meteorologist McCall Vrydaghs’ voice prompted them to take cover in the basement just in time.
“When she said there are bad things going on, I felt horrible for her,” Robin said.
The tornado wrecked the upstairs bathroom and the room where the couple’s grandkids sleep during visits.
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A painting of a storm Robin was working on blew through a hole the tornado punched into her art room.
The back deck, which just hours before held family members celebrating the holiday and remembering Fletcher, was filled with debris. So was the yard. The storm tossed the cat house the Sassenbergs had made for Slim Shady, a blue Persian.
“The pounding, the banging,” Robin said. “My ears hurt so bad — and then it was over in 30 seconds.”
After the tornado was gone, Chris emerged from the basement. What he saw left him lost for words other than expletives.
The curses flowed as he tried to wrap his mind around the damage.
“What really got me was opening the bathroom door and there was nothing but sky,” he said. “It looked worse in the morning.”
The morning after, Robin took a walk around her neighborhood and took in the destruction.
“I saw that we were all in this … together,” she said.
That same day, the cavalry came for the Sassenbergs, and that point was brought home even more strongly.
They had thought a few people would show up, but there were at least 30 volunteers from a list of Oregon District businesses that included Heart Mercantile, Luna Gifts and Botanicals, Beck +Call, Tumbleweed, Toxic Brew Co., Ned Peppers and Hole in the Wall.
“Before I knew it, people had showed up with tarps and bins and chainsaws,” Robin said. “They did everything.”
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Latrell Turner, the Sassenbergs’ next-door neighbor on Hillsdale, will likely need a new roof and has damage to his sun room, but he helped hang a tarp in the couple’s bathroom.
The father of three said he is counting his blessings.
“I am not going to complain about anything. I’ve got minimal damage (compared) to what everyone else had,” he said.
The community spirit on Hillsdale has been repeated all across the region: Neighbors, strangers and friends helping one another cope with the destruction the storm left behind.
Help for the Helper
Heart, Luna and Beck + Call co-owner Brittany Smith organized the crew from the Oregon District.
Smith said Robin has meant so much to the historic neighborhood and the city.
“She’s one of the matriarchs down here (the Oregon District). She helps everyone all the time,” Smith said. “She has gone through so much heartache, everything that just happened last week with her family. Now this.”
Robin says she is normally a private person when it comes to social media; she did not even post anything about her son’s illness until his death. But she shared photos on Facebook of the tornado’s toll and the effort to help, to keep friends updated.
The support from family members, neighbors, friends and strangers has been appreciated, she said.
“I kind of turned off my emotions for a bit and have people who are strong for me,” Robin said.
The Sassenbergs and three of their pets — Henry the cat escaped after the tornado and like Slim Shady, has not been seen since — stayed in a friend’s cabin and will soon be staying at another friend’s house.
They hope to rebuild their lives on Hillsdale despite the damage.
Despite everything, Robin said she feels fortunate.
“I have so many friends,” she said. “We are very lucky.”
This story is part of a special project, Stories of Survival, focusing on the people of the Miami Valley who survived the Memorial Day tornadoes and are staying strong as the region moves ahead. You can read other stories of survival from around the region here.
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