BRUNSWICK, NE –
A 90-year-old man escaped his burning house completely nude on one of the coldest nights of the year, then went back inside to grab a robe.
Mearl DePeel had a tough night on Jan. 30, but his story of survival is an inspiring one, if a bit unusual.
That night, wind chills crept below minus 30 in Brunswick, a village just north of Neligh in Antelope County. DePeel, who turns 91 on Valentine’s Day, awoke just before 3 a.m. to the smell of smoke.
He headed for the telephone to call 911. Standing just behind the emergency dispatcher was one of DePeel’s daughters, Willetta Lindsay, who works as a dispatcher at the Antelope County Sheriff’s Office.
She heard the address of her childhood home and told the dispatcher to tell her dad to just get out of the house.
So he did. Barefoot and in the buff, DePeel watched from the frozen metal deck as his two-story house of about 60 years burned. But he didn’t stay long.
“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 told the Antelope County News.
So the long-retired volunteer firefighter grabbed a thin piece of cloth to cover his mouth and charged back into the house.
“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,” he told the local newspaper. “I know every corner of that house. I can find my way in the dark without any trouble.”
DePeel fought his way back out with a robe in hand. But he was still barefoot, and he waited on the frosty deck for 7 minutes while firefighters rushed to the scene.
“He ended up with a little bit of frostbite on his hands and his feet,” his daughter said, “but they’re healing, and he’s in good spirits overall.”
DePeel lost his hearing aid and his 60-year-old dentures in the fire, along with just about everything else, including wedding albums his family had just rediscovered earlier that week.
Firefighters fought the blaze at the 129-year-old house for 12 hours, according to the News, and they drained the town’s water tower at least once over. The only thing salvaged was a roughed-up pair of glasses.
“It was almost like a fireball had gone through the house,” his daughter said.
DePeel’s wife, Dolores, died in November. She used a wheelchair in later years, and their daughter said she thinks that if her mother had been alive, she would have lost both of her parents in the fire.
“Sometimes, there’s blessings there you don’t realize,” she said.
DePeel is living with his daughter in Oakdale for the time being. He had insurance and is expected to recover.
Oh, and as for the nudity.
“I don’t remember a day when he didn’t sleep in the nude,” his daughter said. “He had the house on 73 or 74 (degrees) and had a heated blanket. He was from the old school.”