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It was a little after 4:30 in the morning and Henry Cejudo, wearing a pair of slacks but no shirt, no shoes and no socks ran onto a mostly deserted State Route 101 in Santa Rosa, California, to flag down a fire truck.
“I’m just happy to be alive,” Cejudo, a top UFC flyweight contender and 2008 Olympic wrestling gold medalist, told Yahoo Sports Tuesday.
Cejudo attended a charity event in Santa Rosa put on by NFL Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott that included numerous celebrities. Among them were all-time home run king Barry Bonds, ex-Cy Young Award winner Brett Saberhagen, former Los Angeles Dodgers All-Star Eric Gagne and Olympic speed skater Dan Jansen.
Wildfires in wine country caused – and continue to cause – at least 15 deaths, as well as great property loss. After appearing at a golf tournament that was part of the event, Cejudo was asleep when the hotel’s alarm went off just after 2 a.m.
At midnight before he went to bed, Cejudo noticed the lights flickering.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know why they’re doing that. I thought it was just a California thing,’ ” Cejudo said. “I didn’t think anything of it. I’m an Arizona boy.”
At 2 a.m., the fire alarm went off. Hotel guests were being evacuated, but Cejudo, sleepy and unaware of what was going on, walked over to his window and looked outside.
He saw nothing.
“I looked out the window and everything was OK,” he said. “I was just thinking that someone had hit the alarm but it didn’t seem like there was anything wrong. I just went back to sleep”
That was a big mistake. The wildfires were raging and creeped toward the hotel. Guests were scrambling to get to safety. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Saberhagen left his golf clubs in the parking lot to fit an extra person into his car and escape the fire.
Cejudo, though, was unaware and went back to bed. Between 4 and 4:30 a.m., his sleep was interrupted a second time. This time, he was overcome by the smoke.
He got up and tried to turn on the lights, but the electricity was out. He was staying on the top floor of the two-story hotel and went to the balcony where there was a curtain. He pulled it back to see the surrounding homes and much of the nearby area on fire.
“I saw houses on fire and I looked to my left and half of the hotel I was staying at, my floor, was on fire,” Cejudo said. “It was scary. And at that time, the only thing I could do was to grab my slacks. I grabbed my slacks I wore the night before, but I couldn’t see anything to do anything else. I put my slacks on, I opened the window and I jumped off. I leaped off the second story of the hotel.
“As I jumped off, I landed on a branch that was on fire. Honestly, there was fire everywhere. The fire burned the top of my right foot. I was OK, but I had to put the fire out that was on my right foot. And as I was walking toward the front of the hotel, where the lobby was, it was all going. I saw the hotel on fire, cars on fire, houses around it. It was terrible.”
He was fortunate that he grabbed his phone before he leaped from the window. When he got to the front of the hotel and saw the devastation, he phoned the people he had been with to make sure they were OK.
They didn’t answer immediately, but called him back.
“They said, ‘Hey man, where are you? We got evacuated at 2:30 in the morning,’ ” Cejudo said. “I told them I’d slept through it and that I’d just left the hotel. This was 4:38 a.m.”
Cejudo knew he was going to have to use his wits to survive.
“I thought, ‘Holy crap, what do I do?’ ” he said. “I said, ‘S—, I’m in a battle now. I’ve never seen anything like this before.’ I wasn’t sure what I was going to be able to do.”
He saw a police car on the nearby freeway, but couldn’t get to it. But as he walked toward the freeway, a fire truck was approaching. He jumped a couple of fences, ran onto the road and flagged it down.
The firemen picked him up, wearing only his pants, and drove him 10 minutes to safety.
Afterward, he realized that he left his Olympic gold medal, his Olympic ring and Olympic belt in the room.
“First of all, I know how fortunate I am and I’m really happy and lucky to be alive,” he said. “I feel like God watched over me and he’s not done with me yet. It’s crazy. It’s like it was a movie except that this was real life and people were losing their homes and everything.”
And while he would have rather not lost his medal, he said he was hardly concerned.
“You know, the medal just was an object, just a medal and that’s it,” Cejudo said. “What really meant something was the blood, the sweat, the tears that went into getting that medal. I’ll always have the memories of that with me.
“I’m not too worried about that. This was a tragedy, just like that terrible thing that happened in Vegas. It’s awful. Losing a medal, man, I am fortunate to be here talking to you and being alive. That’s the important thing.”