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Chuck Haga, Published June 20 2009

Devils Lake man loses his father and daughter, but saves the lives of two neighbors ... all in three days

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. — Even as he grieved the one-two deaths of his father and a daughter — both gone within three days — Bill Burdick’s instinct was for life.

His father, Gordon Burdick, a decorated veteran of World War II, died Monday. It was a hard loss, but not so much a shock. He was 87 and had lived a full life, serving as Benson County sheriff for many years, volunteering in retirement with the U.S. Forest Service in the Bighorn Mountains and listing his hobbies as “gardening and bull riding.” Occasional laughter dappled the funeral home Thursday as Bill Burdick and his siblings recalled their father.

The awful shock had come three days before Gordon Burdick’s death, when Bill’s daughter, Alicia, collapsed and died. She was 25.

Bill and son-in-law James Uriell, Alicia’s husband, sat up with other family members late Tuesday in Burdick’s backyard. They had come together to mourn, share stories and prepare for two funerals.

Shortly before 11 p.m., someone spotted flames and smoke coming from a neighbor’s house.

Burdick and others raced to the house, where an elderly couple struggled to escape thick, black smoke. The man strained to open a patio door. His wife, with a bad hip and severe arthritis, had fallen in a back doorway leading to the garage.

Burdick and the others brought them to safety.

The confluence in one family of great loss and selfless heroics has moved many people here, including a woman named Karen who left a card at the funeral home Thursday.

“In just days, he lost two,” she said, “and saved two.”

Devils Lake Fire Chief Jim Moe said he wouldn’t hesitate to call Burdick a hero — and a great neighbor.

The fire apparently started when a mechanical chair lift, recently purchased to ease the elderly woman into and out of a chair, caused cloth on the chair to come into contact with a hot lamp bulb, Moe said. The chair was in flames, fire spreading across the room, before she or her husband noticed. The house was destroyed.

“The next morning, I went over and visited with him a little,” Moe said. “I gave him my condolences about his father and daughter, and I thanked him for what he did.”

Relatives of the elderly couple, who were treated for smoke inhalation and released, also stopped by to thank Burdick.

That was Wednesday.

Thursday, Burdick buried his daughter.

Today, he will attend his father’s funeral.

“I can’t imagine how he was feeling,” said Moe, who served with Burdick in a North Dakota National Guard unit based in Devils Lake.

“His mind was on a lot of things, and he wasn’t inclined to talk much. But I truly believe that if it had not been for the neighbors reacting as they did, those two people would not be with us today.”

Through a family member, Burdick declined Thursday to talk about the rescue.

“I feel so sorry for him,” the fire chief said. “Maybe it’s a good, soothing thing to know they helped someone survive, too. Maybe someday I’ll get a chance to talk with him about it.”

The Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co.