After a blaze in early October destroyed their home and most of their earthly possessions, Jefferson City octogenarians Rudy and Dorothy Lemke were grateful to be alive, but grieved to have lost their beloved pet cat.
On Saturday, some of those bad memories were assuaged when dozens of friends and family members crowded into the Lemke's newly rebuilt home for a housewarming party. The celebration was a chance to recognize Officer Meredith Friedman, who risked her life to rescue Dorothy Lemke, thank the firefighters who battled the blaze and give credit to the construction workers and cleaners who put the situation right again.
The older couple moved back into their home on Feb. 22.
Builder Larry Lewis told the story of how Friedman - the first emergency worker to arrive at the scene - saw heavy smoke pouring from the building and heard a man and woman calling to one another. While both Rudy and Dorothy made it to the ground floor the night of the fire, Rudy exited the front door thinking Dorothy was right behind him. Dorothy, seeking a coat from a closet near the family room, had grown confused in the dense smoke.
Although areas of the first floor were falling into the basement, Friedman, who was carrying a bright flashlight, was able to locate Dorothy at the rear of the home and lead her to safety.
"They both were treated for smoke inhalation," Lewis said.
After the incident - which was caused by faulty wiring - Dorothy later would say, "Just when I had no hope, I saw this bright light and saw a woman's face in front of me. It was like an angel who came to save my life."
"Hardly," joked Friedman, whose visit on Saturday was a surprise. Lewis said she has been nominated as a candidate for the American Red Cross's hero award.
The firefighters who responded to the call were also moved to be recognized at Saturday's celebration.
"To us, it's a routine house fire," Capt. Tim Young explained. "But we also know a house fire is a sacred loss, and worse sometimes than a business fire. We were just doing our job that night. But it's a very big honor to see you back in your home. We don't get to see that every day."
Part of the reason so many people attended Saturday's housewarming party is a reflection of the many connections the Lemke's have forged over the years through their extensive volunteer efforts. For the past 30 years, Dorothy, a retired optician, has brought upwards of 50,000 used eye glasses to the impoverished people who live in the remote villages of the Yucatan peninsula. In addition to the eyeglass project, the Lemke's Merida Foundation - named for the area's principal city - also fees 450 children each day in the Yucatan.
Not only has Rudy been actively engaged in the Merida Foundation, he also serves as sacristan every day at his parish church, waking at 4:30 a.m. daily to make sure the church is ready for Mass.
Bishop John Gaydos attended the housewarming to bless the Lemke's new home.
Gaydos said many Americans travel to the Yucatan's tourist spots. "But they don't see the people and their needs. One couple does, and they can never get enough of it," he said.
The housewarming also served as a chance to rectify the loss of the couple's pet cat, Squeaks, with the gift of a new one that was brought in as a surprise by the firefighters.
Christina Clem, Rudy's daughter who lives in Dallas, said when her father called her shortly after the fire, she said: "I could tell he was visibly upset. Not that he lost the house, but that he lost that cat. He was so devoted to this one, Squeaky."
Clem said she thought her dad was ready for a new pet.
The Lemke's seemed both gratified and touched the support the community has shown since Oct. 10.
"We really didn't expect this," Rudy said. "It kind of brings tears to our eyes."