Butterfly wings adorned each of the five little caskets, marking young lives lost far too soon.
Green wings for 18-month-old Gwendolyn. Yellow wings for 3-year-old Troy and 8-year-old Christopher. Pink wings for 4-year-old Fannie, purple for 6-year-old Mary.
“Our hearts are exploding … there are no words to describe how we feel right now,” said Debra Lewis, the children’s aunt.
More than 200 people gathered at Shiloh Temple Church on Saturday to remember the five siblings who died Feb. 14 in an early morning north Minneapolis fire, one of the deadliest in the city’s history. Those in attendance included community leaders, teachers, family and friends, many still devastated by the loss and anxious for answers.
The children’s father, Troy Lewis, 60, escaped the fire out a second-story window and returned to try to rescue his children. He grabbed two of them before he was overcome by smoke.
The two girls, 9-year-old Shaca and 5-year-old Electra, remain hospitalized, though their father said Saturday that they’re improving — evidenced, he joked, by Shaca wanting something from McDonald’s and Electra asking for M&Ms.
The girls, though, are still distraught over the deaths of their siblings, he said.
“I was sending my children home, to their mother, to a better place,” he said after the funeral.
The family moved to Minneapolis in 2006 and lived in a North Side duplex. Lewis’ sister, Debra, said the household was like that of any big family — bustling with kids arguing over whether to watch “SpongeBob” or “The Wiggles” while their mother helped the older children with homework.
Then last fall, their mother and Lewis’ longtime partner, Kim Davis, 31, died, leaving the family reeling. And now this, Debra Lewis said, choking up.
Troy Jr., she said, was the family’s practical joker while baby Gwendolyn was the free spirit, showering those she loved with big hugs and kisses. Christopher had cute dimples while Mary had her mother’s smile, and Fannie, her grandmother’s elegance.
“You were there that morning and we know you tried [to save them],” she told her brother at the funeral. “Now we have to stand fast.”
‘It’s not over’
Investigators haven’t determined the cause of the Valentine’s Day fire, but have said a space heater had been running for days and was located where the fire appears to have started. The exact source of the fire was difficult to determine because so much of the apartment was destroyed. A fire report said smoke detectors were present, but it’s unclear if they worked when the fire broke out.
Troy Lewis, though, blames his landlord for not providing sufficient heat.
The building had passed a city inspection and the landlord has said that no complaints were received from Lewis.
Lewis plans a legal fight as he looks for a new place to live.
“It’s not over, I can assure you that,” he said.
Aid for the family
Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, school Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson and Fire Chief John Fruetel attended the funeral as did several faith leaders, the children’s Bethune Elementary teachers, friends and family from around the country.
“Minneapolis has never had anything like this,” Bishop Richard Howell said in an interview afterward, saying it was the greatest tragedy for the North Side since the deadly 2011 tornado. “It’s shocking to the community.”
The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers is raising money for the family (tinyurl.com/LewisFund) as are local churches, which expect to present them with cash next Sunday.
The emotional, nearly two-hour funeral ended with family members hugging and holding each other up as they embraced the five white caskets one last time. Each casket was topped with bouquets of red roses and covered with mementos — handwritten notes from young classmates, Christopher’s certificate for perfect school attendance, photos of the children’s smiling faces.
A drum line played as the caskets were wheeled out. The colorful mesh butterfly wings were left behind, stuck together in a fusion of yellows, green, pink and purple.