Oregon District tavern owner fighting back after tornado: ‘You don’t stop looking at the sky’

Published: Tuesday, July 02, 2019 @ 10:00 AM

More than a month after a Memorial Day tornado seriously damaged her Dayton home, Robin Sassenberg was reunited with one of her favorite creatures. Video by Amelia Robinson

Yoo-hoo, Cheetos Crunchy Flamin’ Hot snacks, dirty cake and Peanut M&Ms were served a little more than a week ago at a memorial service for Robin Sassenberg’s youngest son. 

>> PHOTOS: Tornado victims share their stories of survival

The Dayton woman found herself laughing at the stories friends, former teachers and family members recalled of Fletcher Austin, the 34-year-old son she lost just days before the most savage of the Memorial Day tornadoes all but destroyed the Hillsdale Avenue home she and her family moved into 32 years ago.

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Fletcher died awaiting a liver transplant in St. Louis.

Robin said someone at his memorial service held at Baker-Hazel Snider Funeral Home in Harrison Twp. brought up a corny joke he liked to tell.

 “Why don’t you see elephants in trees? Because they are good at hiding.” 

Robin and Chris Sassenberg (third and fourth in second row) with their family during the holidays. The couple's Hillsdale home was serious damaged during the Memorial Day tornadoes. The couple raised their blended family of six children in the house. Fletcher Austin, Robin's son (pictured behind her) died awaiting a liver transplant just days before the storm. His twin sister Abby Beach and other siblings with nieces, nephews and sisters and brothers in law.

The co-owner of the Trolley Stop in the Oregon District was looking for photos of Fletcher for the memorial the night 15 tornadoes hit the Dayton area. 

Roughly a month after the unprecedented storms, she spoke of Dayton’s giving spirit and the need for inspiration and joy. 

“People are sick of being sad. I don’t want to be sad,” Robin said. “(Fletcher) was a silly guy.” 

Robin and Chris Sassenberg house and cottage was damaged during the Memorial Day tornadoes. Robin returns to the house daily to feed her cat Slim Shady who has been missing since a tornado hit the home.(Amelia Robinson)

In light of two unimaginable back-to-back blows, few would blame Robin if she were sad, but the much-loved Oregon District fixture says she has reason to be inspired.

“Dayton is filled with kind people,” she said. 

>> One month later, Old North Dayton businesses more optimistic 

‘HE HOLLERED BACK’

 As they wait to learn the fate of the home where they raised a blended family of six kids,  a “fur baby” gave the Sassenbergs and those who love them reason to rejoice over the weekend.

Robin has been visiting her house daily since the tornado to check the mail and property. 

More importantly, she leaves food and water for Slim Shady, one of her two cats that went missing the night of the storm. 

Shady was outside of the house on the night of the storms. 

Frightened, Henry the orange tabby emerged from the basement where he had been when the tornado hit with Robin, Chris, two dogs and another cat (Mini, Cooper and Alice), and ran off.  

Cat reunites with owners weeks after being lost in tornado

A city worker spotted the golden-eyed cat about three weeks after the storm. 

Henry was reunited with his family, but there was no sign of Shady. 

As days turned into weeks, Robin could only hope that tufts of fur she discovered in a cage set up on the back patio belonged to the blue Persian. 

She had been calling out “Shady” and “kitty, kitty” as she has searched the area around the house. But nothing.

But something different happened when she visited the house Saturday. 

“I went down the driveway like usual, and I hollered for him and he hollered back," she said. “I walked on the deck where we used to sit and he came up and joined me.”

Robin could only imagine where the cat has been since the storm. 

She was glad to have him back.

Like Henry, Robin said Shady was clearly pleased with the reunion as well. 

>> Cat reunited with Dayton restaurant owners weeks after being lost in tornado

“It was his love for his humans that brought him back and the love of his territory," she said. “He really does love us in his very weird way.” 

Henry, like dogs Mini and Cooper and cat Alice, is staying with Robin and Chris in the home of their daughter’s sister-in-law.

Abby Beach at the memorial service for her twin brother Fletcher Austin.

Robin visits the Hillsdale home twice a day to check on Shady, who spent much of his time outside before the storm.

“I call him every single day. Now he hollers back every single time,” she said. “He’s guarding the house.”

Robin said Shady hates being picked up, but loves being petted. 

>> One month after tornadoes, Harrison Twp. family reunited with pet cat

A trip to the family’s temporary house is not in the cards for Shady. 

“He would slice us to pieces,” Robin said. 

Shady’s beloved territory is nothing like it was before the storm. 

‘WE ARE STILL IN A HOLDING PATTERN’

Robin and Chris reached the basement with Mini, Cooper, Alice and Henry just before the tornado hit on Memorial Day.

They could only listen as their house built in 1926 was banged by the tornado that ebbed between EF-3 and EF-4 as it traveled from Brookville to Trotwood, to Harrison Twp. to Dayton and then on to Riverside.

Dirty brown water from the heavy rain downpours that have happened since fill buckets in the Sassenbergs’  house located on Hillsdale Avenue, one of the hardest-hit parts off North Dixie Drive.

Tarps cover the roof and floors. The house is filled with water-stained dry wall instead of laughter from visiting grandchildren. 

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“We got a pretty bad report from the structural engineer,” Robin said. 

An earlier inspection revealed that the four-bedroom home was literally twisted by the monstrous tornado. Now the house, like many around it, may need to be leveled.

Robin and Chris Sassenberg house and cottage was damaged during the Memorial Day tornadoes. Robin stands in the home's livingroom about a month after it was hit by a tornado.(Amelia Robinson)

“(A) contractor is making a new estimate based on that report. Insurance agent may be seeking second opinion. I am proceeding as if I get to keep my house,” Robin said. 

The Sassenbergs told this news organization that they expect insurance to cover the cost of rebuilding or repairing their  house,  but that may not happen for months.

They’ve put in an offer on a small Dayton home they can live in until returning to Hillsdale.  

“We are still in a holding pattern, and I don’t think we are different than most people,” she said. “There are things we have no control over, so we have to wait. A whole community got destroyed at the same time; there are resources being pulled in every direction.”

>> RELATED: Tornado relief: How you can help

More than 2,200 structures in Montgomery County alone were either destroyed or severely damaged in the Memorial Day tornadoes, according to a report the county recently released. 

Robin thinks most of her neighbors on the badly damaged street will be back because they owned their property.

‘YOU DON’T STOP LOOKING AT THE SKY’

Thus far, Robin says she and Chris have not run into any troubling road blocks while trying to straighten out the mess the storm caused.

“(I) just want things to work out right,” she told this news organization. “Insurance pays to rebuild our house, and that's enough.”

Their landscape has shifted. 

The Sassenbergs’ property is far more barren than it was before the storm and the days after it. 

There is little trace of Robin’s cherished backyard garden or the six pine trees planted more than 30 Arbor Days ago for each of the couple’s six kids. 

“They were big and beautiful,” Robin said of the trees. 

The chestnuts are also gone, as are the black walnuts and hackberry trees.  

Robin and Chris Sassenberg house and cottage was damaged during the Memorial Day tornadoes. Robin returns to the house daily to feed her cat Slim Shady who has been missing since a tornado hit the home.(Amelia Robinson)

Manicka Thomas, a clinical social worker and owner of  Kindred Connections Therapy Center, said the impact of loss will linger.

“We just experienced a tragedy in the community,” said Thomas, who has partnered with service organization like SoLoved and has offered service to tornado victims after the storms. “It was something that was outside of the normal.”

 Robin said a sense of security was lost during the storm. 

“They don’t feel safe anymore,” she said of those who have survived the tornadoes. “You don’t stop looking at the sky.” 

>> RELATED:  How pets were impacted by the tornadoes  

Robin and Chris Sassenberg house and cottage was damaged during the Memorial Day tornadoes. The tornado change the landscape and property around the house. This cottage behind the family's home is pictured.(Amelia Robinson)

>> Tornadoes 1 month later: Trotwood family looks for memories of mom, wife in debris

‘I AM REALLY GRATEFUL’

A caravan of friends — many from Oregon District businesses  — rushed into help in the hours and days after 15 tornadoes tore through the region. 

>> Tornadoes 1 month later: ‘It still seems unbelievable’

They helped secure tarps on the house and remove debris. 

Robin and Chris Sassenberg house and cottage was damaged during the Memorial Day tornadoes.(Amelia Robinson)

Robin said about 80 percent of the things she and Chris owned were saved. 

“I am just going to work and trying to live normally” Robin said. 

She is also trying to give back. 

The Trolley Stop teamed up with Cavalier Distributing, Mad Tree Brewery, Fathead Brewery, Brewdog Brewery, and JackieO's Brewery to raise $7,500 for tornado victims. 

Attention for tornado victims has waned in the weeks following the storm. Robin said that is natural. 

“I am really grateful for everybody that helped and can’t blame them for moving on with their lives,” she said. 

But she said Dayton is not done helping those in need.

“There is plenty of help out there. Just ask,” she said.

Robin and Chris Sassenberg house and cottage was damaged during the Memorial Day tornadoes.(Amelia Robinson)
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.