- Associated Press - Saturday, November 26, 2016

BELLEVUE, Iowa (AP) - In the weeks following a catastrophic blaze nearly two decades ago, multiple experts told Chris Baker that rebuilding Mont Rest Inn was a long shot, at best.

Engineers and architects warned Baker that the foundation of the bed-and-breakfast had been compromised by the nearly 650,000 gallons of water used to fight the raging fire that broke out on Christmas Eve, 1996.

“The insurance companies considered it a total loss,” Baker said. “The whole top of the house was off. The basement was flooded.”

However, she refused to let these early assessments deter her from bringing Mont Rest back from the ashes.

The Telegraph Herald (https://bit.ly/2gjzWhg ) reports after a massive rebuilding effort, Baker reopened the inn in the fall of 1998. It now has 13 rooms, which can accommodate up to 26 guests, and employs a dozen full- and part-time workers.

Memories of the fire - and gratitude for those who fought it - live on. A gala set for Dec. 8 at the bed-and-breakfast will benefit the same fire department that saved it nearly 20 years ago.

Naomi Kueter worked at Mont Rest at the time of the fire.

“I just remember going to the house and pulling as many items as possible out of it,” she said.

Kueter now serves as the innkeeper. She said she is amazed by the visitors who are attracted to the location.

“People here come from all over the world and enjoy the history of Mont Rest and Bellevue itself,” Kueter said.

Baker said she was out of town when she learned her business caught fire. As she drove back to Bellevue, she could see the column of smoke from 10 miles away, she said.

Kent Clasen was one of the first firefighters who battled the blaze.

At first glance, the fire did not seem all that serious, Clasen said.

“It started out as a small and contained fire,” he said. “What we didn’t realize was that it was in the walls. The way the building was constructed, there were no firestops in the walls, and the fire just really took off on us.”

Baker still vividly recalls the spectrum of emotions she experienced as the fire spread.

“As it traced from room to room, I remember saying, ‘I’ve been in the business 10 years, it was time to remodel that room anyway,’” she said. “When the tower crashed into the second floor . that is when I really thought, ‘OK, it is over.’”

Baker said she still owes a debt of gratitude to the firefighters.

“Had they not fought the fire so diligently, I am convinced the structure would have burned to the ground,” she said.

Mont Rest will host a gala from 6 to 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 8. All proceeds will go to the Bellevue Fire Department. The gathering will include a silent auction and tours of the house, which will be decked out in its full holiday decorations.

Clasen, now chief of the Bellevue Fire Department, said he is grateful that firefighters will be honored and supported financially through the event. He said proceeds will be used to purchase new “hydraulic rescue tools,” more commonly known as “Jaws of Life.”

“Any time you can get that kind of support from the community, it really means a lot,” he said. “That was such a historic fire, and the fact that Mont Rest rose from the ashes, that is a great thing.”

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Information from: Telegraph Herald, https://www.thonline.com

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