Milton-Freewater woman picks up pieces after fire destroys home

Jewell Berndt lost virtually everything, including a beloved cat, in a fire Friday afternoon.

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MILTON-FREEWATER -- This was a good morning for Jewell Berndt, despite everything she's been through in the past few days.

The Milton-Freewater resident was sitting in sunshine and breathing, she pointed out. "I've never been shown so much love by the Lord."

Yet, she conceded, Berndt would "very much" like to see her cats again. "They're not kitties, they're full grown, but you know ..."

At about 4 p.m. on Friday, Berndt was cooking in the mobile home she's owned for nine years when a young man showed up on her porch, ready to help the 66-year-old woman get a lawnmower put away.

It was a matter of minutes before she stepped back inside to return to kitchen duties, but the house had grown dark with oily smoke and she could see the red glow of flames. "I tried to get my cats, but I couldn't, I had to go back out. I ran out, I was screaming and the young man called 911," she recalled, even while explaining she was still having trouble recalling everything still. "Of course, everyone could see it."

Firefighters from the Milton-Freewater Rural Fire District arrived at the Northwest Eighth Street address almost immediately, soon joined by city firefighters, and battled the persistent blaze for a few hours, then rechecked the residence throughout the evening, Berndt said.

The fire rekindled at 5:30 a.m. Saturday, according to Jim Holcomb of the rural fire department. Neighbors reported another fire later in the day that was put out with fire extinguishers, Berndt noted. "We can't figure out how it is still standing there."

Whatever the thick smoke didn't destroy, water damage did. Furniture and even her car reeks of the oily smoke. Some of her clothing was pulled out, but it will never come clean, she said.

Even her hearing aids burned up, she said.

"Everything is wet and black. And the shoes that made it, we were starting to laugh, I asked "What is that horrible smell?' and it was these rubber shoes. I scrubbed and scrubbed them."

As well, Berndt is an artist, working in wood, pen-and-ink -- animals and the outdoors are her favorite subject -- gourd carving and beading. All of her original work is gone, as well as the family pieces dating back to ownership by her great-grandmother, she said. "I inherited those things, it's kind of hard to think about those things. But I'm alive and I'm not hurt."

She cannot say the same for her three pets, the cats she adopted from a rescue operation.

While Mechanic and Diesel escaped the house, Hemi was carried out by firefighters. "They wrapped him in a big towel and put him in the backyard. They said he was dead."

Later, however, a neighbor noticed Hemi had raised his head and Berndt was able to hold her cat and say goodbye before he died of his injuries, she said today. "That was my greatest loss."

Mechanic and Diesel are still unaccounted for, Berndt added. "They are probably so horribly scared."

Berndt is anything but, however. Losing everything has given her a blessing she could have never envisioned, she said. "My community is so wonderful. I don't even know a lot of these people."

The owners and staff at Morgan Inn, where she is staying at the moment, check on Berndt to make sure she is eating, and strangers have pressed gifts of food and more into her hands, the artist recounted. "I have a hard time putting into words my heart's feeling."

She is anxious that any publicity about her plight not be about the negative but about the positive, she added. "Make this about the community and the Lord. He's taken a very bad thing and made something good, It's all for his glory."

An account has been opened at Bank of America to help Berndt recover from her loss. Donations can be made at any branch to the Fred Kelp account, with notation that it is to benefit Jewell Berndt.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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