News That Matters To Antelope County - Your News. Your Way. Every Day!
© Pitzer Digital, LLC
With a -37 degree wind chill, a 90-year-old Brunswick man escaped a house fire last Wednesday morning wearing “nothing but my birthday suit.”
Mearl DePeel was sound asleep when he was startled awake by the smell of smoke around 2:45 a.m. He leaped from bed and instantly saw flames coming from an adjoining exercise and storage room, which was on the west end of the house. DePeel, who was a firefighter for 25 years, knew when he reached for the door handle, he couldn’t get out that way.
“It burned my hand,” DePeel said as he turned his hands over so the palms faced up. “They feel like they’re burning today because I froze them out there. I froze my hands and my feet last night.”
Somehow DePeel managed to reach a phone near his kitchen to call 911. Despite being naked, DePeel, who will turn 91 on Valentine’s Day, then escaped outside without any clothes on. It wasn’t but a few seconds in the nearly 40-below zero wind chill that DePeel realized he should have grabbed something to wear, so with a cloth over his face, he ran back through the entire house to grab his robe as flames matched him step for step.
“There were flames all around me, and the house was so full of smoke by that time, I almost was on my hands and knees and was getting so sick,” DePeel said matter of factly. “I know every corner of that house. I can find my way in the dark without any trouble.”
Barefoot and wrapped in only his robe, DePeel stood on his metal deck and watched flames engulf his two-story home of 60-plus years. Although “it felt like an hour and a half,” firefighters were on scene in about five minutes and immediately carried DePeel to one of the firetrucks.
DePeel said it wasn’t sadness or fear going through his mind at the time. He was simply trying to survive.
“When you’re standing out there in the nude in 37-below weather, you don’t think about much of anything other than finding something to cover up,” he said.
While DePeel was trying to get out of the fire, his daughter, Willetta Lindsay of Oakdale, was praying her father was safe. Lindsay was working at the Antelope County Sheriff’s Office when DePeel called 911. She was standing behind the emergency responder who answered her father’s emergency call.
“I didn’t know he was all right for 30 minutes (after the call),” Lindsay said while shaking her head. “I heard his voice say, ‘My house is on fire at 306 Tracy St.,’ and then he hung up. I had no idea.”
“That’s because of the flames,” DePeel interrupted. “The flames were melting the west door while I was on the phone, so I dropped the phone. I figured they’d find it.”
It’s been a rough couple of months for DePeel. He just lost his wife, Delores, of 70 years in November. While looking through the house just two days before the fire, DePeel said they had just discovered his wife’s wedding book, graduation invitation and other keepsakes.
“We just put it all in one big bag and put it in the buffet on Monday,” he said. “Now it’s all gone up in flames. We lost everything.”
Built around 1890, DePeel said his house was one of the first three constructed in Brunswick.
Between the fire and water, nothing in the house is salvageable. Daughter Ardith Carr of Elgin said firefighters emptied the entire Brunswick water tower while fighting the fire. The street in front of the DePeel house had several inches of ice on it the following day. Trees and bushes in the yard were drooping due to the thick ice hanging from them.
“It’s a total loss. There’s nothing left,” said DePeel, who also lost his hearing aids and teeth in the fire.
An account has been set up at Brunswick State Bank for those who would like to make a donation. Please mark it Mearl DePeel Donations.
Firefighters from Brunswick and Plainview spent hours at the fire on Wednesday. Brunswick firefighters were on scene for more than 12 hours.