Santa Rosa man on oxygen dies after PG&E shut-off
Gerald Niimi survived the October 2017 firestorm, and so did the home near Santa Rosa’s Skyhawk community where he and his wife, Naomi, lived for 40 years. But smoke from the blazes that devastated Sonoma County didn’t help his lungs, nor did smoke from the Camp fire that blanketed the Bay Area last November. Early this year, an incurable lung disease he learned he had the year before forced him to start using oxygen machines to breathe.
Naomi Niimi, in an interview, recalled how she found him after a summer car crash on Calistoga Road cut their power for a few hours. Unable to call out for help with a dead landline and without a cellphone, the former Vietnam veteran stationed himself in the still dark heat of their powerless home, with his tank’s level cranked down to preserve his oxygen.
Then came PG&E’s big planned anti-wildfire outage that knocked out power to more than 2 million Californians earlier this month, including the Niimis. Gerald Niimi lost his life in the aftermath of that shut-off, when he and Naomi had to scramble to a bed and air that Gerald could breathe. He was one of about 6,900 Sonoma County customers in a PG&E financial aid program for customers with certain medical conditions.
As the Oct. 9 shut-off took effect, even a small generator to power the oxygen concentrator Gerald used to breathe was too heavy for Naomi. She couldn’t lift the respirator either. Their oxygen provider was overwhelmed with requests for extra tanks, she said, and she figured Gerald’s remaining oxygen would last for maybe nine hours if he didn’t eat, speak or exert himself.
“The power wasn’t going to turn back on in nine hours,” she said, “so it was up to us to figure something out.”
She drove them to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, trying to get Gerald admitted through the emergency room. Hospital staffers offered oxygen, but not a place in the medical facility. Gerald’s hospice provider wasn’t able to find him a space in Santa Rosa, but did track down a bed in Cloverdale. There was a smaller oxygen machine there, but that barely provided enough air for Gerald’s battered lungs.
“He spent two days essentially gasping for breath,” Naomi said.
All summer, he’d been in good spirits, if not great health. The stress of worrying about running out of oxygen during the outage, plus the increased energy he needed to expend to breathe, wore him down.
The Tuesday after the fire, he was given some morphine in hopes of calming down his respiratory system. Naomi remembers what she heard before Gerald Niimi, 75, passed away in his sleep Oct. 15.
“He said, ‘I just can’t go on like this,’” she said. “‘I can’t breathe. My lungs are shot.’”
She has friends who lost their homes in the Tubbs fire and said she doesn’t begrudge PG&E’s decision to cut the power. But she can’t help but think Gerald’s death was a consequence of the outage, however indirect and unintentional.
“I think that that power outage, the stress, the lack of oxygen — it was really the tipping point for him,” she said.
PG&E has about 6,900 Sonoma County customers in its medical baseline program, which provides financial aid to customers who need power because of certain medical conditions, said PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras. (Naomi identified Gerald as one of them.) About 2,700 were expected to be impacted in the outage planned for this weekend, and about 1,950 were affected during the outage that preceded Gerald’s death, Contreras said.