October 12, 2005 11:40 AM

Having lost her New Orleans home to Hurricane Katrina and having lived on disability for the past seven years after suffering an aneurysm, Jacquelyn Sherman was about due for a visit from Lady Luck. On Oct. 4 the retired librarian got it, hitting a $1.6 million jackpot at a Louisiana casino.

“I like the slots, and I played one machine for about a half-hour,” Sherman, 56, tells PEOPLE of her trip to the Evangeline Downs Racetrack & Casino. “Then I decided to play a different machine down the row.”

That one, aptly called the Wheel of Fortune, was worked by Sherman for about 15 minutes and easily ate up the last of her $20 gambling money. But then, suddenly, at 6:30 p.m. the lights on the Wheel of Fortune began blinking more urgently than usual.

“There was a lady on my right,” Sherman recalls, “and when the winning symbols came up, she hit me on the shoulder and said: ‘Oh, look! You won a million dollars!’ I said: ‘Uh-uh, no I didn’t,’ because even though the lights were flashing, there were no bells or buzzers going off. But then I turned around and there were five casino employees standing behind me.”

The workers uttered words that were music to any gambler s ears: “They said: ‘You won! You won!'” remembers Sherman, who says she started shouting: “‘Where’s my sister? I’ve got to find my sister!'”

In another corner of the casino, Clarissa Sherman got a call from Jacquelyn on her cell phone and came running, thinking her sibling “was ill or something,” says Jacquelyn, who “finally realized I’d won when Clarissa asked the manager if it was true. He pointed to the total that was displayed on the machine and said: ‘Yes, that’s what your sister won, right there – about $1.6 million.'”

The sisters screamed and hugged, then called Clarissa s house to share the incredible news. “I went home, took a quick shower and told everyone goodnight,” says Jacquelyn. “They were still all excited, and they said: ‘You’re going to BED?” I said: ‘Yes, I am – I’m tired!’

A month earlier, Sherman had evacuated her New Orleans Mid-City neighborhood just ahead of Katrina’s rage. Sherman and 24 assorted relatives – including Clarissa – temporarily moved into the modest-sized home of her gracious brother-in-law and sister, Carol Manuel.

The morning after her win, Sherman recalls, “I came downstairs and started a pot of coffee. When my sister came into the kitchen, I asked her: ‘Clarissa, did I just dream that I won more than a million dollars at the casino last night, or did it really happen?’ She laughed and said: ‘Yes, Jackie, it really happened.'”

Though the IRS will take a sizeable chunk of her treasure, Sherman’s not complaining. Monthly payments will start very soon and will continue for 20 years.

“I’d definitely like to live in New Orleans again,” Sherman declares about ultimately moving back and buying a house in her old neighborhood. “Right now, that’s the only firm plan I have for the money.”

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