The gleaming white caskets were so small that it appeared only one body was being laid to rest, not three.
Large portraits of the grinning children lined the front of the church, honoring Latorious, 6, Latoria, 5, and Latorianna Thomas, who was about to turn 2 — all young lives tragically cut short in an early morning house fire on Oct. 4.
“Now we’re here looking at three babies that could be doctors, lawyers, judges,” community activist Spike Moss told more than 100 mourners at the funeral on Saturday inside the Spiritual Church of God in Robbinsdale. “We want this to be a symbol of change. The only good from this is they were so innocent that they’re on their way to heaven.”
The children had recently moved from Chicago to north Minneapolis with their mother, Taneisha Stewart. It was their first night in a new rental property on the 2700 block of Penn Avenue N., and the furnace wasn’t working. With temperatures dipping, Stewart turned on the stove so her family could keep warm.
Investigators have concluded that the electric stove started the fire, but they are still trying to pinpoint the exact cause. Arson has been ruled out, but authorities don’t believe Stewart was home when the blaze erupted, as she originally claimed.
Firefighters who ran inside the engulfed two-story home that day attended Saturday’s memorial service to pay their respects. “We’re part of this community and we do feel the pain,” said Mark Lakosky, president of the Minneapolis Firefighters Local 82. Being here “gives these firefighters a way to deal with this in whatever way they can.”
Rescuers received a standing ovation from the crowd and were blessed by a group of pastors for their heroic efforts at the scene.
At times the service resembled more of a call to action for residents than a traditional funeral, with more than a dozen speakers tackling issues like violence and poverty, which have long plagued north Minneapolis.
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., called on members of the black community to take care of one another in order to prevent further tragedies.
“No child, no matter how poor they may be, should have to withstand the boiling heat of Florida in July or the cold in Minnesota,” he said. “No family should have to turn on the stove just to stay warm.”
Stewart and the children’s father, Antonio Thomas, sat in the front row with family as pastors begged the audience to forgive her and for Stewart to forgive herself.
“None of you will know the burden that she will carry for the rest of her life,” Moss said.