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Published: Sunday, 10/31/2004

Fire victims laid to rest



Some paused for a moment to pay their respects to the child tucked inside or to offer a prayer. Others reached out to grieving relatives in the front row of the packed Indiana Avenue Missionary Baptist Church.

Less than a week after the children were killed in Toledo's worst house fire, more than 1,000 people filled the pews, balcony, and choir area of the central-city church yesterday to celebrate a "homecoming" service for the children.

Tears were shed. Tissues passed out. Mourners clasped each other's hands and held their children tight. And throughout the service, ministers reminded them that "the babies" are now with God.

"These children have gone back to God," Bishop Nelson Clark eulogized. "They moved into another house where there is no suffering and no pain."

Services for the children - siblings Terri Sanders, 6; Talia Sanders, 19 months; Tanija Sanders, 7 months; Teairia McCullough, 7; Brian McCullough, 5, and Brionna McCullough, 2, and their cousin, Quanisha Kirk, 7, - began with a quiet rendition of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and ended jubilantly with songs of praise and celebration.

Scripture readings and poetry were woven throughout the service, attended by Mayor Jack Ford and Toledo Public Schools' board vice president Larry Sykes.

"Everyone wonders why you had to die," Ashley Johnson read in a poem, "Seven Angels." "You must have caught God's eye."

Comfort is found by mourners of the seven children who lost their lives last week in a house fire that officials believe was started on a mattress or bedding by one of the children. Comfort is found by mourners of the seven children who lost their lives last week in a house fire that officials believe was started on a mattress or bedding by one of the children.

Planned and impromptu spiritual songs such as "Amazing Grace" - moved mourners to sing, clap, sway, stand, and lift their hands.

A family friend blessed the service with lyrics that drew applause and praise.

"Don't you cry, wipe the tears from your eyes, for they have gone to a better place," he sang confidently.

Denise McGough tolled a bell seven times for the "return home of the seven young spirits." She read a poem, "A Letter From Heaven," named each child, and rang the bell again.

About a dozen people spoke, including Reynolds Elementary School Principal Sue Finck and the kindergarten and first-grade teachers who taught Terri, Teairia, and Quanisha.

"Whenever it rains and the sun shines through, remember the seven little angels now in God's love and care," Mrs. Finck said.

Bishop Clark urged everyone to take a look at themselves and to find their faith in God.

"The tragedy is if you miss God in the midst of this," he preached. "Devote your life to Christ and you can see the children again."

He added: "[God] didn't let these babies suffer. He took them home out of the tragedy. You're gonna weep. You're gonna miss their laughter. But give purpose in life to see them again."

During the service, the Rev. Sylvester Rome recalled the day of the Norwich Road blaze, which fire officials believe was started on a mattress or bedding by one of the children using a lighter, match, or candle.

He was at his church, Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, when reports came in that God was "beginning to take the children home."

"We offered prayers to spare some of them. We went to the hospital and another report came down that God took another one home. Early Monday, he took the last to glory. The doctors did all they could," he said. "God decides."

When the service ended, pallbearers - many dressed in white and cream suits and red shirts - slowly carried the caskets to six hearses parked on Indiana Avenue. The crowd watched the procession in silence as gospel music flowed out of the church.

"It was very beautiful," said Richetta Allen, the victims' aunt. "They gave them a beautiful homecoming."

Contact Christina Hall at: chall@theblade.com or 419-724-6007.

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