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Garden Grove Girl Killed by Falling Pine in Yosemite

Times Staff Writer

The only thing 9-year-old Jasmine Bitts wanted to talk about lately was the trip she and her mother were taking to Yosemite National Park this week. They would rent a cabin in the woods, spend some quiet time together and go skiing during the day.

The trip ended in tragedy for the Garden Grove family Thursday night when 50-m.p.h. winds sent a huge Ponderosa pine tree smashing through the roof of their cabin, crushing Jasmine in her bed.

The girl’s mother, Nancy Earle, 31, and her mother’s friend, Charlie Ross, 36, of Carpinteria, were in the cabin in the Yosemite Lodge area and received minor injuries. They were treated and released at the Yosemite Medical Clinic.

About 400 campers and employees had been evacuated from the campgrounds, small cabins and structures near the lodge and the Ahwahnee Hotel a short time earlier after fierce winds began swaying trees and blowing debris through the park, park spokeswoman Mallory Smith said.

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The trio had been warned to leave their small one-room cabin, but they apparently decided to stay in it rather than seek shelter in the nearby hotel or lodge, which were being used as evacuation centers, Smith said.

“The tree snapped 15 or 25 feet above the ground and fell over,” she said. “Those trees are so big and it all happened so fast, there was nothing anyone could do.

“By the time help got there, she was unconscious and she wasn’t breathing,” Smith said, adding that some pine trees in the park are more than 100 feet tall.

The accident happened at 8:20 p.m. Jasmine was pronounced dead at the medical clinic half an hour later, Smith said.

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Eighteen to 25 other cabins were damaged by the winds, and the road leading to the park was closed Thursday night, Smith said. The road and most of the buildings were reopened Friday morning.

Jasmine’s grandparents, Marie and Bill Earle of Garden Grove, said they only had sketchy details of the accident. Nancy Earle had not returned from Yosemite on Friday.

“We were told that (Jasmine) was in bed when the tree came down on them,” Marie Earle said. “She (Nancy Earle) must have heard a cracking sound and went to the window, and that’s when the tree fell in. She tried to lift the tree, and that’s when she hurt her back.” Jasmine lived with her grandparents off and on for two years. She moved to Garden Grove from Carpinteria in Ventura County last year and stayed for eight months before going back to live with her mother. Jasmine and her mother both moved back to the grandparents’ home after Christmas, Marie Earle said.

Jasmine’s two brothers, ages 15 and 6, live with their father in Redding in Northern California, she said.

Jasmine was excited about the trip and talked about it often, her grandmother said. She and her mother left Garden Grove on Tuesday, stayed overnight in Carpinteria, then drove up to Yosemite on Wednesday.

“Nancy had promised her daughter she would take her skiing, and they went there to ski,” Marie Earle said. “They already had the tickets to go skiing, but the winds came up and they had to cancel it until this morning (Friday). I don’t guess they . . . got a chance to.”

Students and teachers at Woodbury Elementary School in Garden Grove, where Jasmine was a fourth-grader, described her as a friendly and kind girl who was so timid and quiet that she almost whispered when she spoke.

“She didn’t like to talk when other people were around, so Tuesday she waited to be the last one out of the room,” said Doris Glasser, Jasmine’s homeroom teacher.

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“She came to me and said she was going to Yosemite, and her mother thought she should take her schoolwork with her. I said no, go on and have a good time and pick it up when you get back. She kind of smiled, and she seemed relieved that she didn’t have to take any work along.

“She was excited about the trip because she had never been there, and she was going to learn to ski.”

Glasser said Jasmine was an average student who had worked very hard to improve her math. She had blond hair and was a little tall for her age. She was well-liked by students in her class.

Principal Al Sims said Jasmine enrolled at the school in March, 1987, as a third-grader. She completed that term but did not return in September. She came back on Jan. 5 and enrolled in the fourth grade.

A classmate and friend, Junik Sandhu, 10, said she had spent a lot of time with Jasmine, playing with Barbie dolls and riding bikes through their neighborhood. She said one of Jasmine’s favorite games was “nine-lives,” in which they tried to force each other to fall off their bikes.

“You had nine tries, and Jasmine always won,” Junik said. “She was real nice, and she shared her feelings with me and her cookies that we got in the cafeteria. The whole class couldn’t believe it when they heard the news.”

Another classmate, Claudia Navarro, 9, said that she met Jasmine last year and that they became study partners.

“She was friendly, sweet and kind, like a real friend. She was my best friend. She was like my sister,” Claudia said. “She was easy to talk to. If she needed something, she would always tell you.”

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Sheindel Calfee, 9, said that she lived down the street from Jasmine and that the two of them spent a lot of time together.

“I never realized how much I loved her until today,” she said, fighting back tears. “I can’t believe she’s dead. I didn’t get to say goodby to her. I wish I could have.”

Sims said he heard about Jasmine’s death on the radio as he drove to work Friday. He and the school psychologist broke the news to students in their classrooms.

“Some were quite upset, particularly those who knew her well,” Sims said. “We gave them an opportunity to express their feelings, and they talked a little about Jasmine. After that, we took a recess, and they went back to the academics.”

Glasser said she asked her students to write letters to Jasmine’s mother expressing their grief.

“One of them asked me what I was going to do with her desk. I told him I didn’t know. I looked at the desk and said, ‘Oh my goodness, she’s never going to be there again,’ ” Glasser said. “It all seems so useless, someone so young, and no one is to blame.”

Winds rake wide region of California. Part I, Page 1.


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