When Lamonica Howard steps out the door of her Minneapolis home, she instinctively expects to see 5-year-old Latora.
“She would wave. I would wave,” Howard said. And just before the little girl moved to a different neighborhood on Saturday, Howard reminded her: “Now Latora, you have to look both ways when you cross the street. We were a village that looked out for one another.”
But on Tuesday evening, Howard and her children came to Holsey Memorial Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in north Minneapolis to find comfort and grieve for Latora, her 6-year-old brother, Latorious, and 1-year-old sister, Latorianna, after the three children died in a house fire late Saturday night.
“It’s just so hard to believe. They’re just so young.” Howard said. The three children and hers spent most of the summer playing together. “My heart hurts.”
About 30 people gathered at the Tuesday evening vigil to sing, pray and seek solace. The few children who came were solemn, trying to understand the unfathomable and not knowing how to express it to a stranger. “I knew them,” said 13-year-old Abigail Davis. “We played together. We hung out.” She looked away when asked how she’s dealing with the loss.
Taneisha Stewart and her three children had just moved into the two-story house on the 2700 block of Penn Avenue N. on Saturday. She recently moved away from her husband and had been living in the Twin Cities with her mother until the rental home on Penn Avenue became available. After the fire, Stewart told reporters she had turned on the oven for warmth because the furnace wasn’t working. Fire department officials believe the fire started at or near the stove.
It’s unclear why the natural gas service had not been turned on in the rental home. City ordinance requires that residential buildings must be able to provide heat that can be maintained at a minimum of 68 degrees Fahrenheit between Oct. 1 and April 30.
Betty Ellison-Harpole, a retired teacher, stood up during the vigil urging city officials to pass a law that requires all utilities to be functioning before a landlord allows a tenant to move into a rental property.
Moments before the vigil began, the Rev. Annie Hester sat at her desk, her Bible open in front of her. She searched for the words she needed to inspire a community to come together and to bring peace and strength to a mother who lost her three children.
“My spirit is burdened for her,” Hester said. “She’s in total chaos.” The mother didn’t attend the vigil Tuesday.
Another vigil, organized by Pastor Harding Smith of the Spiritual Church of God, is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at his church, 3978 W. Broadway. Smith said Tuesday night’s vigil wasn’t sanctioned by the family.
Despite the dueling vigils, Hester and the others who gathered Tuesday sought unity.
“People here see people get shot almost every day,” Hester said. “But three children dying in a fire, whoa. This is a big tragedy. Everybody is saying this could happen to me. It’s bringing a community together — a community that needs to be shaken up.”
Rowena Holmes, a liaison with the Minneapolis Police Department, looked out into the church’s pews where some of the those attending the vigil held lit candles. “This doesn’t make sense,” Holmes said. All around the room are mothers, and “they’re all grieving. This community is grieving.”