Jim Reilly is working on the archaeology project of a lifetime - quite literally, his own.

This is at least the 20th time that he has sifted through the rubble inside his burned-out house in Boothwyn, and after slowly walking up to the front door, he hesitates before turning the key.

In one sense, Reilly never knows exactly what he might find inside - a toy truck that his father gave to his sons, or maybe one of his wife's Longaberger baskets.

But the 59-year-old printer knows exactly what he will come away with.

Pain.

The stinging jolts of flashbacks to the bustle of a life with a wife and three kids, weekend pool parties, backyard volleyball games - suddenly gone.

That was before he lost his middle child Andrew in a car crash in 2006, then his wife, April, two years later, before he was laid off by the printing company, and finally, in the last unbelievable chapter, the house destroyed by fire.

Why does he go back looking for anything he can salvage from the heaps of water, fire, and smoke-damaged rubble?

Reilly says he has no choice, because to do nothing would be to give in to inertia, and because you never know what you might need in rebuilding a life.

"Maybe the purpose of the fire was saying, 'OK, you're closing one chapter and starting another,' " said Reilly, who's not the kind of guy who talks much about his feelings, even when carrying out his grim mission.

"It's the end of one life and the beginning of another."

Family backbone

Actually, the old life had its struggles, too, although nothing like this. Reilly says that he and April, a nurse, had a good 30 years before the string of tragedies. They married in 1978 and briefly lived in the Rolling Glen apartments in Boothwyn - the same complex he lives in now with his oldest, Shaun - before moving into their now-destroyed two-story Colonial.

Shaun, 29, was born with cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities. He is nonverbal, unable to do basic tasks like shave or brush his teeth.

April made their first-born her life's work. "She fought for her kids," Reilly said. "If she didn't think Shaun was getting the services he needed, she let people know."

She was the hard-charging organizer of the home front; her husband was the provider.

"Jim was more of the backbone," said his brother, David, of Malvern. "He was steady and consistent. And just very content with his life."

Weekends were busy with the kids' sports and band recitals. A history and rail buff whose father worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad and later SEPTA, Reilly treasured his late father's uniform and lapel pin, and the badge from his hat.

"It's all gone," he said, stepping among the ruins.

So, too, are his wife's collection of Barbie and Ken dolls and their children's toys, which she was saving for the day they would have grandchildren.

That day never came.

Four years ago, Andrew, 21, and his girlfriend were heading to Millersville University for the start of his senior year when his car spun off the road and hit a telephone pole. He was killed instantly.

"To lose a child, it's tough," Reilly said. He and April endured because they had each other.

"I told her, 'I couldn't get through this without you.' We grieved in our own way, but we had each other to talk to."

Having experienced an unimaginable loss once, he said he was better prepared for the next one, which came all too soon. April was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June 2008 and died that fall.

For Tabitha, 22, the deaths have left her scared of what might happen next.

"You worry about everything," she said.

Before the fire, "everybody said, 'Your streak is done,' " said Tabitha, who graduated from Immaculata University a week ago, cheered on by her father, brother, and boyfriend.

Like her father, she tries to put things in perspective, noting that others have it as bad or worse. The two can recite a litany of suffering - the woman who just lost two legs to diabetes, the good friend who had a heart attack, the professor whose daughter died from lymphoma.

"At least my mom didn't have to suffer long and Andrew died quickly," she said.

That first year without April, Reilly took comfort in discovering that he could care for Shaun, who attends a day program at Elwyn. But just as Reilly started to breathe again, in January his job was cut.

Then, on March 8, he was cooking hot dogs and baked beans for dinner when Shaun, wrapped in an afghan, came in contact with the stove. Firefighters believe he walked into the family room and dropped the smoldering afghan on a love seat, then sat down on the sofa.

When Reilly went to get him for dinner, he saw the fire and raced out with his son.

"Here's the love seat," Reilly says now, pointing at a pile of burned coils and melted fabric. The family room where the blaze began is a disaster, the drywall and recessed lights that Reilly installed gone, the bay window and fireplace boarded up.

But the freshly mowed backyard looks as pristine as it did in 1992 when the family installed the large aboveground pool. The basketball hoop that was a birthday present for Andrew, the wooden swing where April liked to sit, the roses and azaleas - they are a snapshot of his former life.

For Tabitha, who lives nearby with her boyfriend, "it's still tough. I try not to drive by," she said.

With all the turmoil, Shaun has started hitting himself across the face and thighs, something he had not done for years.

"They have no idea what causes it," said Reilly, who guesses it's related to the loss of his mother. He did not do it during graduation, for which Reilly is grateful.

He's also thankful for the friends who have propped up the family. Even their pastor, the Rev. Clyde Flaherty, is unsure how Reilly copes.

"I've seen people in crisis, they reach a place that a lot of us never have to go to," he said.

For two months, Reilly and Shaun lived with good friends. People dropped off clothes, donated money, and threw two beef-and-beers.

Some have suggested he think about dating.

"I'm not ready," he says.

Weekends away

Slouched down in a green sofa in his apartment, Reilly spreads out blueprints for the new house, which, thanks to insurance, will closely resemble the old one.

But if he doesn't get a job soon, he will have to sell it.

Meanwhile, he and Shaun spend weekends with his brother's family, a welcome diversion from the silence of the apartment. Once, David recalled, Jim asked, "What did I do to deserve this?"

Such moments are rare. Typically, father and son watch David's kids' games, as they used to do for Andrew.

Having nothing to do is the worst.

Last Monday, Reilly kept busy by mowing the lawn at the house and pumping water off the pool cover, ceaselessly drawn back to the ruins.

Though he has combed for precious treasures - rescuing family pictures, the couple's wedding album, April's jewelry box and her good china - there's still so much more strewn about.

Contact staff writer Kathy Boccella at kboccella@phillynews.com.