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Madras mourns farmer killed by lightning beneath tree

Published On: Dec 24 2013 03:18:31 AM CST
Updated On: Aug 27 2013 08:29:58 PM CDT

NewsChannel 21's Kandra Kent talks with a friend mourning the loss of Bret Hemenway, a Madras hay farmer who took shelter under a large tree with his wife when lightning struck.

MADRAS, Ore. -

A long-time Madras farmer was killed and his wife injured Sunday afternoon when lightning struck the large tree they took shelter under during an intense thunderstorm along Highway 97 about 20 miles north of Madras, Jefferson County Sheriff Jim Adkins said Monday.

The victims were identified as Bret Hemenway, 50, and wife Connie Hemenway, 49, who were heading south on the highway, apparently on separate motorcycles.

They were returning to their home on Danube Drive in Madras after a two-day ride over Mt. Hood and down the Columbia Gorge, through The Dalles and Hood River, Adkins said.

Neighbor Jack Skipper told NewsChannel 21 the Hemenways were taking a weekend getaway before they would have to devote most of September to their crops.

"He had just bought a new motorcycle," Skipper said. "He and his wife had two days so they could take off and have a little fun before they started doing haying."

Connie Hemenway told deputies they had stopped at the Cow Canyon rest area to wait out the storm, which was pelting the region with heavy rain, hail, wind and hundreds of lightning strikes.

When there was a break in the storm, they continued south, but Connie Hemenway said the storm had started again, so they stopped near milepost 75 and took cover under a large tree.

“Connie said that while under the tree, she saw a blue light and felt extreme pain in her left arm,” Adkins wrote in a news release.

“Connie was blown backwards and said that Bret was still leaning against the tree and not moving,” the sheriff said.

Connie Hemenway was able to move her right arm and was able to call 911 for help, but was unable to get a response from Bret, Adkins said.

"What's the odds of that?" Skipper said of the lightning strike. "Everybody that knew Bret will miss him. He was a very good friend."

Jefferson County dispatchers got the call at 4:18 p.m., and deputies and medics arrived at the location roughly seven minutes later, Adkins said. They performed CPR on Hemenway but were unable to revive him.

Connie Hemenway was taken by ambulance to St. Charles-Madras for treatment of her injuries, and once stabilized at the hospital was informed of the tragic news about her husband, Adkins said.

A hospital spokeswoman confirmed Monday that she had been treated and released.

Jack Skipper owns a  farm right near the Hemenways. He said Bret was leasing his land to turn a larger hay crop.

"He was the hardest-working individual that I think I've ever been around," Skipper said. "Bret gave me a lot of good advice on how to put up quality alfalfa."

Skipper said the storm was one of the worst  he'd seen in his more than 10 years in Central Oregon. But the flattened crops and ripped up trees around the community don't mean a thing, by comparison.

"It took its toll, but that's all replaceable," Skipper said.

Out in the small farming community, neighbors are spread out, but everybody is coming together.

Soon Bret's crops will be ready for harvest, and these farmers take care of their own.

"We've stressed to them, if they need help, call. Because we'll be there," Skipper said.

Skipper said several farmers, including himself, will be pitching in to harvest the Hemenways' hay.

The Oregon Hay Growers Association's Website listed the Hemenways as 'Oregon Hay King' winners in 2001. Online listings indicate Hemenway also ran an equipment repair business.

Bret Hemenway's Facebook page said he'd been a Madras farmer since 1980 and was a Cottage Grove native who studied at Lane Community College. Connie Hemenway's page said she is an educational assistant with the Jefferson County School District and is also from Cottage Grove.

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