Minutes after Diamond Head resident Cristal Mortensen put her 85-year-old disabled mother to bed Wednesday night and turned on a small table lamp as a night light in the next room, she heard her mom yelling for her.
She and friend Glenn Rostron, who had just arrived, ran over and saw in the area of the lamp “flames up the wall and moving onto the ceiling instantly,” said Mortensen.
Rostron, 48, decided they had to get out immediately, especially since several oxygen tanks were inside the home the family has owned for 40 years. The two lifted Ilse “Micki” Mortensen out of her medical bed, onto her walker and practically carried her out of the fast-burning redwood house. They safely escaped the inferno that destroyed the once beautiful home and everything in it.
“If we waited 10 more seconds, we would have had to decide to go into a room engulfed in flames where the mom was,” Rostron said.
Ilse Mortensen, a retired restaurateur from Bavaria, with Danish husband, Axel, in 1972 founded Heidi’s Bread Basket, a German- style bakery in Moiliili, later adding a deli and restaurant with several locations. The couple had also been ballroom dance instructors for Arthur Murray and operated a chain of finishing schools.
“By the time we got out, flames were above the house,” Cristal Mortensen said. Rostron went back in to get her phone, laptop and his wallet, and called 911, and they ended up huddled at nearby Unity Church. They also alerted a tenant, who escaped.
Mortensen said they realized the family dog, Kaena, a large gray mixed rescue found on the North Shore, was missing.
They knocked on neighbors’ doors to no avail. An hour later he was found on the opposite side of a fence in the backyard. A police officer climbed over and helped carry him over. “He’s like a total survivor,” she said.
Upon finding him, she was relieved the whole family was OK.
The Honolulu Fire Department sent 51 firefighters to the three-alarm blaze at 8:33 p.m. The first unit arrived at 8:37 p.m. and found the structure fully engulfed in flames. The fire was brought under control at 9:19 p.m. and extinguished at 11:53 p.m. Firefighters also extinguished two burning trees ignited by embers.
HFD said a smoke detector was not close enough to alert occupants. Emergency Medical Services treated a neighbor downwind for smoke inhalation.
The family is staying with friends.
Mortensen, 45, grew up in the home and said the blaze destroyed her mom’s birthday presents from Monday, and every treasured memento her parents owned and all their photographs — which she spent a year cataloging.
But every item and photo “is now embedded in me,” Mortensen said. “In a way, you don’t need the external. I’m now carrying everything with me.”
The Ossipov-style house, with indoor gardens, an atrium and a pool, with a flow of inner and outer spaces, is charred beyond recognition.
Her mother, who has Parkinson’s disease, had just gotten home after a year of hospice care following a heart attack.
Just a year and a half ago, the home had undergone a complete two-year restoration after the roof failed.
“It was my mother’s dream to live here till the end,” Mortensen said. It was also a “healing space” for the younger Mortensen’s Pilates and somatic therapy clients.
Despite the destruction, she calls it a complete miracle everyone survived.
And she feels grateful for the support of friends and community members, who brought food, clothes, money and hugs.
“We feel connected to all of these resources, feeling a sense of resilience and connection, and have a perspective and see the bigger picture.”
The only item to survive was a bronze Buddha she brought back from a trip to Burma where she went to meditate. It fell out from a wall that burned.
A GoFundMe account called the “Mortensen family fire tragedy” was set up to assist the family.