Heather and Keith Berndt moved into their house off Wood Duck Trail on Dec. 3, 1999, just in time for Christmas. As a young family with a baby boy, they purchased the land years prior and slowly built it from the ground up.

It was going to be their forever home, Heather Berndt said, so she had a good excuse to be picky.

The house was full of the same thing anyone’s “forever home” is full of: an old wedding dress, an antique radio-turned-family heirloom, prom dresses handmade by Grandma. Heather and Keith’s two children grew up there; they had childhood bedrooms to come back to when visiting from college for the holidays.

A maple tree in the front yard that was planted 24 years ago grew tall enough to provide shade for the dining room. Each year, the Berndt children would take photos in front of that tree for their first day of school. Stained glass crafted by Heather Berndt’s grandfather adorned some of the home’s windows.

Now it’s all gone.

Total loss

The Shakopee Fire Department, along with eight mutual aid departments, responded to a fire at the home at 8 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 17. The house was believed to be a total loss.

Earlier that morning, Keith Berndt was sleeping in isolation upstairs, sick with COVID-19, when the smoke alarms went off.

He woke up and saw smoke outside the back window of the house. He thought his son Dalton had burned his breakfast, but when nobody was in the kitchen, he ran downstairs and hollered for his son, who he thought was isolating in the basement as he was also COVID-19 positive.

Dalton wasn’t home — he had started to feel better and ran to pick up a McDonald’s breakfast for himself.

When Keith Berndt opened the utility room door, he was overtaken with smoke and could see flames emerging from the ceiling. That’s when he called 911.

Heather, a patient care supervisor on the cardiac telemetry floor at M Health Fairview Ridges in Burnsville, left the house at 5 a.m. She’d just logged into a meeting to discuss staffing when her phone rang. When she answered, all she could hear were sirens in the background and her husband’s voice telling her to get home — the house was on fire.

‘Makes you fall to your knees’

Throughout the day, 12 different fire departments fought the fire for five hours straight as the Berndt family watched the home they’d built crumble in front of them.

Nothing was saved except for what was being stored in the garage.

“We just had the windows replaced two years ago, and you’re watching the firefighters use metal sticks to break your windows,” Heather Berndt said.

She watched the maple tree she and her husband planted a quarter of a century ago being chainsawed by firefighters who needed to get the tree out of the way.

“It just makes you fall to your knees,” she said.

Now, their entire first floor is sitting in their basement. And because of the intensity of the fire, they weren’t able to save anything.

Early investigations show the fire was likely caused by the air exchanger in the basement. Heather Berndt said litigation is possible with the company that manufactured the air exchanger.

“It just followed all the ducts throughout the house,” Heather Berndt said. “Just when they thought they’d put it out, they’d find another hot spot and it would be bad.”

“There’s no words,” Heather Berndt said.

Keith Berndt was wearing a pair of sweatpants, a T-shirt and a jacket. Dalton returned with his McDonald’s breakfast to find his house engulfed in flames. He wasn’t even wearing socks.

Heather Berndt said Dalton lost his three pet chinchillas in the fire, and their daughter’s cat is still missing.

Finding a silver lining

Normally, the Berndt family would be spending Thanksgiving with grandparents, either at their home in Shakopee or their parents’ home. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought an entirely new meaning to the word “home.” And now, the Berndt family must navigate what “Thanksgiving” means to them.

Thankfulness takes on a different meaning when everything you own has just burned to the ground, Heather Berndt said.

“The one thing you have to be thankful for is you are all alive,” she said. “People say that, but that doesn’t stop the hurt of losing the pets. It doesn’t stop the daily crying of losing the things that meant a lot to you, or the daily anger of, why the hell is this happening? We all go through those phases every day at least once, although we’ve also tried to find the laughter in something every day.”

Laughter comes on as quickly as the grief, Heather Berndt said, and it offers her family tiny silver linings. When their son Dalton found a wireless Bluetooth speaker hidden beneath the debris, he tossed it aside, thinking it was destroyed along with everything else. Instead, it connected to his phone. Heather Berndt said her son walked out from what was left of their dilapidated home, hoisting a charred speaker that was playing the song “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor.

“You have to find the joy even when things seem awful,” Heather Berndt said.

There are other silver linings to be thankful for, too, she said. Their insurance company has been easy to work with, and is currently finding a rental home for them to move into. Their insurance agent showed up to the house the day it burned down with a check to buy any immediate supplies they needed. And Heather Berndt’s coworkers put her family in a hotel for the first couple of nights.

Heather Berndt’s father, who works for a semi truck company, was loaned a trailer from the company so the Berndts can store belongings salvaged from the garage.

And despite the items lost that can’t be purchased in a store, the Berndt family now gets a fresh start to rebuild, and to be picky about what they want.

“We can change things now when we rebuild,” Heather Berndt said. “The kids can choose any carpet color they want for their rooms. I can change the layout and make it how I want.”

Heather Berndt added she hopes their story encourages people to check their smoke detectors and make sure their air exchangers are not outdated. If it weren’t for her home’s interlinked smoke detectors that went off upstairs, she said, her husband may not have woken up. Because he had COVID-19, he couldn’t smell the smoke.

The Berndt family hopes, just like back in 1999, that they can move into their newly-built home by Christmas next year.

“I don’t know if that’s going to happen,” Heather Berndt said.

Maddie DeBilzan graduated with a journalism degree from Bethel University. She’s interned at Salon Media and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Outside of work, she sifts through Goodwill clothing racks, listens to Ben Rector's music and goes on long runs.