In the middle of the night, Bill Cutler left the comfort of his own home and raced to his burning funeral home.
“I was worried,” he said, “about the folks we had in the building.”
The always respectful Cutler, the mortuary’s co-owner, wouldn’t describe those souls this indelicately, but — for what folks was he risking his life?
Firefighters arrived shortly before Cutler did, around 3:20 a.m. Tuesday. After the Fire Department assessed the situation, officials gave the OK to enter the building.
“A firefighter and I went in,” Cutler said, “to see if it was possible to remove the deceased.”
Nine deceased people were inside, but Cutler said they couldn’t be reached. “It was so smoky and dark.”
Three minutes after the two men entered, a falling ceiling knocked them down, causing a bloody gash to Cutler’s forehead. It required about 15 stitches at the Nebraska Medical Center.
Was it worth entering the Heafey Hoffmann Dworak & Cutler funeral home at 7805 West Center Road, Omaha’s busiest, when the only people he possibly could save — couldn’t possibly be saved?
“That’s Bill,” explained Terry Kucera, one of the mortuary’s longtime funeral directors. “They were very important to him because they were important to the people we know and serve.”
The mortuary and crematory were destroyed by a fire that apparently started with an explosion. Investigators had not determined a specific cause.
Cutler said late Tuesday afternoon that whatever caused it, “it’s not suspicious at all.”
The building was initially declared unstable. But after 3 p.m. Tuesday, the department gave the OK, and mortuary workers began removing the most precious contents — the remains of the departed.
They were taken to other mortuaries owned by the company. Funerals would proceed as planned, but Cutler said that in some cases, burials might occur later.
Cutler, who swept floors and washed cars as a fifth-grader at his family’s funeral home and who turns 68 on Thursday, said he was grateful no one was seriously hurt. Three firefighters, including the one who was with him when the ceiling fell, suffered minor injuries.
Cutler had worked late Monday, leaving about 8 p.m. Hours later, a security-system alert and a call from a night attendant awakened him.
When he got to the funeral home, he saw that the fire appeared to have started on the west side.
Why go in to even consider retrieval of deceased?
“Because it’s important to families,” he said, his head bandaged. “We always treat everybody as if they were our own mother or father.”
Cutler was on the phone all morning with families, explaining what had happened and making arrangements.
He and partner Tom Heafey, 86, immediately said they planned to rebuild. (The Dworak family also is a part owner.)
But their more immediate concern was staying in touch with those who had entrusted them with the remains of close relatives.
“Bill and Tom are two of the most professional people I’ve ever been around or worked with,” said Kucera, who stood outside the burned structure Tuesday. “The building can be rebuilt, but these families have trusted us to care for their loved ones. I just hope everybody keeps these people in their prayers.”
Families with whom he had spoken Tuesday, he said, were “very understanding.”
Kucera said that since a 1979 merger, Bill Cutler and Tom Heafey had “built the business up from almost nothing.”
The company has other locations, but he said the West Center site, which started with about 80 funerals in a year, now handles more than 1,200 a year, by far the most in the Omaha area.
Although the funeral industry went through a spate of corporate purchases in the 1980s, a number of Omaha mortuaries remain family-owned.
The Heafey funeral home dates to 1882 downtown, and the Cutler mortuaries began across the river in Council Bluffs in 1901. The Cutler family business originally dates to around 1850, started by Bill’s great-great-grandfather in Indiana.
Cutler has an interest in nine funeral homes in the Omaha-Council Bluffs area, as well as four cemeteries. In 1979, the Cutlers bought the former Hoffmann Mortuary and merged with brothers Tom and Ed Heafey, opening at 7805 West Center in July 1980.
For years the mortuary’s long name included two Heafeys, and it’s not unusual to hear people say that a funeral was handled by “Heafey Heafey.”
The families have taken part in numerous charitable and civic causes. In 2013, Bill Cutler — William Cutler III — was crowned the 117th king of Aksarben, the philanthropic Omaha organization that raises money for scholarships.
Early Tuesday, roused by an alarm and rushing to the scene, Cutler thought first of trying to remove “the folks we had in the building.”
In the process, he got hurt — but fortunately the funeral director survived. And will continue serving people in difficult times.
“I grew up in a family that’s been doing this for 116 years,” Cutler said. “It’s just kind of in our DNA.”
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