A silence came over the Divine Mercy Parish Saturday morning as dignitaries paid their respects to four small children, all under the age of 5, who were killed in a three-alarm fire that leveled 8 homes on the 7200 block of Gesner Street five weeks ago.
About 500 people attended the funeral for the four victims of the Gesner Street fire -- 4-year-old twins Maria and Marialla Bowah and brothers 4-year-old Patrick Sanyeah and 7-week-old Taj Jacque. The service began at 9 a.m. at Divine Mercy Parish at 7200 Grovers Ave. in southwest Philadelphia.
The four tiny white coffins lined the front of the church with pink, purple, red and yellow flowers atop. Large portraits of the children were placed in front of each casket.
Wearing a black and white print dress, Dewen "Marie" Bowah sat in the front pew, barefoot with her sandals off, staring blankly ahead in disbelief. At times she put her face in her hands as speaker after speaker, including council persons Kenyatta Johnson and Jannie Blackwell and a representative from Senator Anthony Williams' office, offered their condolences.
"Even though these young people parted from this life early, their parting has not been in vain," said Reverend John Jallah of the Liberian Ministers Association of Pennsylvania.
Bowah was home with her five children and babysitting the two boys when a fire broke out around 2:30 a.m. on July 5. Bowah was able to help her three oldest children escape through a second floor window, which she also used to get out of the house alive. She was not able to reach the youngest kids who were sleeping in a separate room.
"It's just so painful," said the Bowah twins' uncle Shaffa Wilson, while shaking his head during the homegoing service.
The day before the funeral, fire officials released a cause for the fast-moving blaze that leveled more than a dozen homes along Gesner Street. The Chief Fire Marshal declared the cause "undetermined," citing extensive damage to the physical evidence used in the investigation.
Breaking news and the stories that matter to your neighborhood.
There were reports, however, that people were playing with fireworks on a porch before the blaze. The local fire station is just around the corner. Family members and neighbors questioned the city's response time in part due to the close proximity. Distrust ensued days after the tragedy, escalating to protests and multiple arrests.
During the service, Comfort Bowah, the older sister of the twin girls, grabbed Marialla's casket and held on tight as the families were called to the altar. Her relatives relieved her grip from the corners of the casket and embraced her to relieve her discomfort.
Maria and Marialla's obituary read that they were "inseparable and loved each other. Although they were not school age, they were eagerly waiting preschool. They told their mother that they wanted to be doctors to help people."
The family also wrote in Patrick's obituary that his "sweet eyes were pools of love and the grace of heaven" and Taj was a "bundle of joy and the center of our universe."
Patrick Jr. learned to write his name before his death.
Sanyeah squatted down in front of his son's casket, leaned in and kissed his son's portrait with a tear in his eye.
After the funeral, 100 cars, a police escort and a donated Greyhound bus traveled to the Saint Peter and Paul cemetery in Springfield, Pa. where the four children were finally laid to rest.
The crowd began to sing "When the Saints Go Marching In" as the first casket was carried toward the graves. Cries and wails bellowed from those who gathered.
"We were just getting to know you," said Comfort Bowah, as she grabbed Taj's casket.
Numerous in-kind funeral donations poured in to cover the funeral costs. Patricia Quinn of Final Farewell led the effort. Antoine Turay of Turay Memorial Funeral Chapel estimates the discounted cost for funeral services and burials is $10,000.
"It’s very sad, but I’m glad to know that I can at least help out and ease their financial burden so they can get on with their life as best they can. Pretty much all the funeral expenses have been covered," said Quinn of Guckin Funeral Mansion.
As for why the funeral date took so long to be held, Turay said in West African cultures it is not uncommon for a funeral to take place 30 days after a death. The victims' families are Liberian.
After Jacque's casket was lowered into the grave alongside his brother, Sanyeah said his final goodbye and threw two pink roses atop the caskets right before the grave was sealed.
"I know you're a man. Take care of your brother," Sanyeah said.
A fundraiser to benefit the victims of the fire will take place Sunday at Christ International Baptist Church on 2210 S. 65th Street starting at 2:30 p.m.