At just 7 years old, Mike Hernandez Pinto had already survived cancer. And at 16, Breylin Hernandez Pinto could remember being carried by her father on a journey from Honduras to America, where her family came for a better life less than a decade ago.
But their lives — and the lives of five other family members — were cut short from carbon monoxide poisoning the week before Christmas in a tragedy that left the Fargo-Moorhead community reeling. On Friday, the community gathered virtually and in a local church to pay their respects.
"We want to tell you that you are not alone," said the Rev. Eric Bravo Meija through a translator as he spoke to family and friends at the service and to loved ones back in Honduras. "One day you are going to see them again."
Five caskets stretched across the sanctuary of Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Moorhead. The ceremony was simple, with prayers spoken in Spanish and translated to English. A band from the family's church, Mt. Carmel Church in Moorhead, played somber songs in Spanish. Pictures of the family lined a table; beneath it lay a bouquet of white roses.
Remembered were Belin Hernandez, 37, and Marleny Pinto Orellana, 34, their children Breylin, Mike and 5-year-old Marbely Hernandez Pinto; Belin's brother Elder Noé Hernandez, 37, and the couple's niece, Mariela Pinto Orellana, 19.
Services for brothers Belin and Elder are expected to be held in Honduras once their bodies are sent home at the request of their mother. The others will be interred at Riverside Cemetery in Moorhead.
"They were hardworking. Their faith was very strong. Their family was very strong. They were so grateful for everything," Gail Ferguson, an educator in Moorhead, said in an interview before the funeral service. "This was a family who wanted to be safe. And they thought they were."
Ferguson said she met Breylin about five years ago when the girl was a fifth-grader. Ferguson, a paraprofessional at the elementary school, said she befriended the shy and sweet girl when she was eating lunch alone.
"She said she came from Honduras. They walked and took buses and got rides. She remembers her dad carrying her because she just couldn't keep up," Ferguson said. "She said they came here because her parents said that bad things happen to girls in Honduras and they wanted her to be safe."
The family was found dead in their rented duplex on Moorhead's south side by family members Dec. 18. Authorities found nothing to indicate criminal activity and said the origin of the poisoning is yet undetermined. Two possible sources include the furnace and a vehicle in the garage; additional blood tests are underway to pinpoint the source.
Detectives said the home did not have a working carbon monoxide detector, although a detector was found in the unit detached from the wall and with a battery removed.
Responding officers didn't detect carbon monoxide when they entered the home and said the furnace was not producing heat; but because the residents were dressed "lightly," it appeared the furnace was working when residents went to bed, Moorhead Police Chief Shannon Monroe said.
Belin, Marleny and Breylin emigrated from Honduras about seven years ago; Elder joined his brother to work in construction in the Moorhead area about a year ago. They lived in the duplex for about two years, according to family.
Mike and Marbely were born in the United States. Mike's obituary states he was a cancer survivor who dreamed of being a firefighter or policeman. Ferguson said she remembers "Mikey" wearing an eye patch and Marleny telling her they were worried he was going to be blind, "but everything turned out OK."
Marbely's obituary said she was a sweet, thoughtful girl who loved to draw and always had gifts for her mom.
"They were the most loving children. They would give me hugs every day, multiple times a day," said Liz Fritel, a kindergarten teacher who taught both children. "When Mike was in kindergarten, he would tell me he loved me daily. He was so caring to his little sister. He would walk her to her classroom every day and make sure she had everything she needed."
Breylin's English teacher, Dawn Gunderson, described her as sweet, kind, happy and a friend to everyone in class. At the beginning of the year, Breylin wrote she loved hanging out with friends, spending time with family and skateboarding, where she felt "free and forgot about things."
"Breylin reminds me of the sun," classmate Stephanie Schultz said Friday. "Shining, bright, warm and lovely. We all miss her very much. I know I do."
Over the past few years, Ferguson said she kept in touch by bringing the family fresh-baked banana bread and extra vegetables from her son's garden. In September, Ferguson visited the duplex where the family later died.
"This place was so much nicer [than the previous apartment] but still so simple. I don't even think there was a couch in the living room," she said. "When the two little ones came from school, they got pillows out of the closet and laid down on the floor and watched TV and had a snack."
Marleny was always so kind and happy to give back, Ferguson said, noting a time when she ordered tamales from church and the family wouldn't accept payment from her.
"They were just so grateful," she said.
Belin and Marleny's niece, Mariela, was also born in Honduras. Alfredo Hutar, Mariela's fiancé, described her as a kind and happy person who always made the best of things.
After their death, the mother of the brothers, Teodora Castillo, told reporters in Honduras her sons financially supported family back in their homeland.
Relatives started collecting money in plastic jugs to bring the brothers' bodies home. Meanwhile in Fargo-Moorhead, the community sold tamales and offered haircuts to help repatriate the bodies.
Andrew Storkamp, owner of Moler Barber College in Fargo, also collected donations at his business.
"We used to live a block and a half away," Storkamp said. "We talked a lot. They were just a great family. … It was just such a tragedy."