Victims in Portland church fire were twin sisters, pastors who lived on site

The temperature in Northeast Portland was about 19 degrees early Sunday morning when a fire ignited inside the Word & Spirit Church, killing the two twin sisters who lived in an apartment in the building and who led the congregation as pastors.

Electricity in the neighborhood had been off for about 13 hours, neighbors said. A generator is believed to have been in use in the church’s gymnasium, where the fire broke out just before 4 a.m., according to a Portland Fire & Rescue investigator.

The women’s apartment was above the gym.

Officials have yet to release the names of the victims, but neighbors and church members who said they’d spoken to fire officials identified them as Kimberly and Stephanie Hjelt, both 76. They are among at least nine people who have died during a prolonged arctic storm that has delivered freezing cold, snow, wind and ice to the region since Friday.

Fire investigators have yet to determine the cause of the fire.

“Our impression is that the generator was in operation inside the building,” said Craig Gault, a Portland fire investigator. “It’s one of the things we’re looking at.”

Despite neighbors’ impressions to the contrary, Gault said the building was not operating as a homeless shelter before or during the winter storm but at least two other people were in the building and had been staying there at the time of the fire. One was referred to as a caretaker and the other may have cooked occasionally for the pastors.

Fire officials are pulling city records to determine if the building was permitted for occupancy. The Bureau of Development Services said the building was constructed in 1949 and the original plans from the prior year did not identify residential quarters. An inspection card from 1953 did mention “alt custodians quarters. Non-conforming use.”

A bureau spokesperson, Ken Ray, did not have access to information Tuesday evening about the status of any alarms or sprinkler systems in the building.

It’s unclear how long the two sisters had been living in the church. But they previously listed an address in Happy Valley for a home that sold last February.

The sisters had led congregations in two separate church locations in Portland before settling at N.E. 62nd Avenue and Stanton Street in 2008, according to Tim Duclos, who said he was in charge of media and security at the church and had known the sisters for 23 years.

Kimberly Hjelt was the principal pastor at the church, Duclos said. She graduated from Portland State University and from RHEMA Bible Training College in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, according to a flickr profile posted online. She was an editor/writer at Kenneth Hagin Ministries for 10 years, writing and editing more than 40 books for the ministry, the profile said.

Stephanie Hjelt’s LinkedIn profile lists her as executive pastor at the church.

Duclos said Kimberly Hjelt had recently broken her hip but was able to get around on crutches or using a walker.

“They were very joyful people, very friendly and wanting to help,” said Duclos, who described the congregation as small but active. “They never backed down from a controversial subject and were very concerned about Portland and where it had come to. They were very active.”

The two other people in the building were awake at the time of the fire, Duclos said. They first noticed the fire when they were going to the church’s game room to play pool, he said, adding that he didn’t know the identity of those individuals.

Shanda Peterson, who lives two houses down from the church, said she woke about 3:45 a.m. Sunday to go to the bathroom and heard a big pop outside, which she initially thought was an exploding power transformer. When she opened the bathroom curtains, she saw flames shooting above the house next door, then ran to warn her neighbors.

Many neighbors said they knew at least some people slept in the church each night.

“It just freaked me out,” Peterson said of the church and her neighbor’s home, which also caught fire. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, is everyone out?’”

Jamie McWilliams, another neighbor, said she and her husband were woken by noise from the fire at about 3:50 a.m., and her husband ran over because they knew people were living in the building.

“They always wanted to help people get back on track,” she said. “And it was so cold.”

Several neighbors told The Oregonian/OregonLive that they could not get through to 911 and were left on hold when trying to report the fire.

Portland Fire & Rescue said it initially received a call at 4:05 a.m. from a resident whose home next to the church caught fire and the first crew arrived on scene at 4:12 a.m. At that point, firefighters were unable to make it to the interior stairs of the church and attempted to gain access through a second story window. While a crew was on the second floor, the roof partially collapsed and the incident commander gave the order to abandon the building and fight the fire from the exterior, the bureau reported.

Firefighters were able to bring the blaze under control by 5:50 a.m., but it destroyed both floors of the gymnasium and caused extensive damage to the neighboring home, where the occupants safely evacuated. A GoFundMe fundraiser has been organized for the neighbor.

Gault, the Portland fire investigator, said there were household goods stored in the church gymnasium that contributed to the intensity of the fire. Investigating the fire has been challenging because of the roof collapse, which left the rest of the building inaccessible due to its instability.

The building was for sale at the time of the blaze.

Duclos said the sisters had planned to retire in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where they were affiliated with Kenneth Hagin Ministries, a non-denominational church that identifies as charismatic and Pentecostal.

“We’re still trying to figure out what happened,” he said.

— Ted Sickinger; [email protected]; 503-221-8505; @tedsickinger

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