MOORHEAD, Minn. — Relatives and neighbors of the seven family members who died in a Moorhead duplex over the weekend expressed shock, grief and unease Monday while they awaited lab results from blood samples to determine what caused their deaths.
"We are shocked. We feel like it's a nightmare," said Alfredo Hutar, fiancé of Mariela Guzman Pinto, one of the seven who died. "We have more questions than answers."
The seven were found dead Saturday evening in a duplex in a newly built neighborhood on Moorhead's south side.
They were identified as Belin Hernandez, 37; Marleny Pinto, 34; Breylin Hernandez, 16; Mike Hernandez, 7; Marbely Hernandez, 5; Eldor Hernandez Castillo, 32; and Guzman Pinto, 19. Mike and Marbely went to nearby S.G. Reinertsen Elementary School, while Breylin attended Moorhead High School.
Hutar said the family came to Moorhead from Honduras about seven years ago and had lived in the duplex for about two years. Belin and Marleny were the parents of Breylin, Mike and Marbely, according to Hutar, while Eldor was Belin's brother and Mariela was Marleny's niece.
"She was the perfect girl. For me, yeah, the perfect girl," Hutar said of Mariela. "She was a funny person, a nice person. She was a very happy person. In the worst moments, she always laughed."
Hutar placed seven wreaths at the back door of the house, where the entrance Monday remained covered in yellow police tape. A car in the driveway was still connected to a power cord. On the doors and windows were decals of hearts, snowmen and snowflakes, reminders of the family that called the duplex home.
"We can't go into the house," Hutar said Monday while he stood outside shivering in the single-digit temperatures. "We're just waiting. We don't know."
Police noted that a preliminary autopsy had "ruled out any obvious trauma as the cause of death" but neither confirmed nor denied speculation in the Fargo-Moorhead area that the victims died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
"We are looking at all avenues of possible causes of death at this time, and we haven't ruled on one specific cause of death," said Capt. Deric Swenson of the Moorhead Police Department. "It's still a very active investigation. I know the community has made their assumptions, but our job is to look at all the facts."
Police did not say when they would be able to report on how they died. After the Ramsey County Medical Examiner's Office, which received the blood samples, determines a cause of death, surviving family members will be notified before information is publicly released.
In the meantime, the northwestern Minnesota city of 40,000 on the North Dakota border was left reeling from the tragedy just a week before Christmas.
"Right now it's not about speculation — it's about support for the family and friends," said Mayor Shelly Carlson. "And that is what Moorhead does best. This is where we really shine as a community. We really wrap ourselves into supporting the family and doing whatever we can. We're all so interconnected here. We're just going to wrap this family in love and prayer and make sure they're cared for."
Carlson stressed the importance of giving the family enough privacy to grieve, and also of lending support to first responders who must process the scene of the tragedy.
A handful of residents who live on the 4400 block of 13th Street S. said members of the Hernandez family were quiet but kind.
"It's shocking because it's very quiet around here. Nothing ever happens around here," said Rissa Morin, 28, who lives in a duplex at the other end of the block from the family home.
Morin said she would often see the Hernandez children biking to the playground near their house. She has siblings about the same age as Mike and Marbely, she said, but didn't know the family well and hadn't heard anything about how they died.
"Everyone is thinking carbon monoxide, but it's just hearsay," she said.
If it was carbon monoxide, she said, it would be worrisome to residents in the neighborhood where families are renting several duplexes of the same design.
"The layouts are the same. I'm assuming the wiring and installation and all that is the same," she said.
Esmah Alawabi, who lives in a duplex kitty-corner to the Hernandez home, said her house looks so similar that she did a double-take when she saw pictures on the news of police vehicles and crime tape near the home. She said her family rents the duplex from a property management company.
Alawabi only met the Hernandez family a few times but said she attended a birthday party at the home with her elementary-age children.
"They were very friendly," she said. "You barely saw them out. It was a quiet household."
"When we first heard about what happened, we were worried," said Fatima Alawabi, Esmah's daughter. "We were scared because we didn't know what happened."
Moorhead schools were in session Monday, and a grief team was going to be made available to work with students and staffers, Carlson said.
"Our Moorhead Area Public Schools family is deeply impacted and our counselors, social workers and administrators are focused extensively on supporting students and staff through this difficult time," said Brenda Richman, executive director of community engagement and public relations for the school district.
"At the end of the day, there are seven individuals that have been lost, and this family is grieving," Carlson said. "That's the first step, the most important step. How do we help this family as they go through this process? When you lose seven people in your family, there are so many things coming at you."
City Council Member Larry Seljevold said he expects the entire community to rally around the family, much as it did this summer when hundreds came out in support of a local mosque that was vandalized and spray-painted.
Still, nothing will replace the sights and sounds of the Hernandez children playing in the neighborhood, he said. If there's any lesson to be learned, he said, it's the importance of checking batteries in carbon monoxide detectors.
Said Carlson: "Give your loved ones a bit of a tighter hug this Christmas, and keep this family in your thoughts and prayers."
A GoFundMe link has been established to help the family cover funeral expenses.