Doris Wiemers has faced plenty of ups and downs in her 76 years, but nothing compared to a house fire last Thanksgiving.
Contractors had to gut much of her home on South High Street in Belleville to make repairs. Many of its charred contents were thrown away.
"It's an experience I would never want to go through again and an experience I wouldn't want anyone else to go through," Doris said. "It's the saddest thing in the world."
Fortunately, Doris escaped the burning house with her daughter, Debi Anna, and their four dogs. A fire-restoration company saved some of their most prized possessions.
They included Doris' 1944 cast-iron Singer sewing machine, her Christmas dishes and glassware and a few items that belonged to her late husband, George.
"They asked me what meant the most to me, and I said, 'His collection of (eagle figurines) and mugs and beer steins,'" said Doris, a Scott Air Force Base retiree who also worked for Brooks Brothers. "They're important 'cause he's not here anymore. They meant a lot to him."
The company, All Clean Restoration Services, also salvaged George's retirement clock from Standard Oil, the American flag from his funeral and his World War II Flying Fortress model airplane.
The fire destroyed or badly damaged all of Doris' photos and appliances and much of her clothing and furniture.
"I lost a lifetime, I felt like," she said. "So many times I'll be looking for something, and it's gone."
All Clean is one of several metro-east companies that clean homes and businesses after fires, floods and mold infestations and restore as many contents as possible.
Owner Mike Nagy, 70, of Swansea, is used to dealing with people at the worst times of their lives.
"For a majority, the shock wears off in a week or two," he said. "Then reality sets in."
After a fire, Mike and his crew go to the scene to determine what can be saved. Those items get hauled back to their 12,000-square-foot facility south of Belleville.
Often, the biggest challenge is removing the smoky odor. Employees have eight deodorizing methods at their disposal, everything from thermal fog to charcoal crystals to an ozone machine.
In some cases, its a matter of heating up a couch or chair to release smoke trapped in pores that may have expanded during a fire, then contracted.
"It's pretty successful," Mike said. "Over the years, there have been very few times I've had to tell people I can't get the odor out."
Doris' fire started Thanksgiving morning. She and her daughter went to Belle-Clair Fairgrounds to deliver a trailer full of hand-sewn items for a craft show the next day. They were gone less than an hour.
Shortly after the two returned to make Thanksgiving dinner, smoke filled the home.
"I opened the side door, and a young man came bounding up the steps," Doris recalls. "He said, 'Ma'am, you've got to get out. Your house is on fire.' And I said, 'I'm not going anywhere without my dogs, and I have four of them.'"
After the pet rescue, about 40 people gathered to watch the Belleville Fire Department extinguish the blaze.
"The origin of the fire was located on the front porch," said Battalion Chief Randy Schield. "The cause was human involvement, most likely discarded smoking materials."
Debi, 57, is an occasional smoker, but Doris thinks someone threw a cigarette butt that landed in a flower pot while they were gone. The fire department didn't assign blame.
The fire burned the porch and spread to the front of the house. Most damage in back was from smoke.
Doris and her insurance agent sought help from Mike, a former Jehovah's Witness minister who founded All Clean in the early '80s.
He and his wife, Delores, have been in the cleaning business since the '60s. His first fire-related job took place at a Western Union outpost in California.
"It wasn't called restoration at that time," he said. "It was just part of the cleaning business."
A few years later, the church transferred Mike to Carbondale and later East St. Louis. Today, All Clean has six employees. They mainly deal with fires and floods throughout the region.
"We've done the horrible ones -- the blood pathogen cleanups -- after murders or suicides," Mike said. "My infamous one was a drug deal gone bad. They murdered a gentleman, and the body was there in the summer, so it burst."
Tools of the restoration trade include a range of chemical cleaning products, toothbrushes, scouring pads, picks, paintbrushes and Dawn dishwashing liquid.
After employees repair, clean or restore items, they store them until families can move back into their homes.
Clean-up costs vary widely, ranging from $5,000 after the average grease fire to $15,000 or $25,000 after a larger fire that requires all contents to be removed.
"The one thing I've found is that everybody wants their pictures," Mike said. "They don't care about their tax papers, but they want their pictures."