CHICAGO — A Baptist pastor and his wife buried their six youngest children Saturday in white coffins, 11 days after the five boys and a girl were killed in a fiery freeway wreck.
Hundreds of mourners joined the Rev. Duane (Scott) Willis and his wife, Janet, to bid the children farewell at the family's small brick church with a wooden steeple on the city's South Side. The Willises were still badly scarred with burns on their faces and hands.
Five coffins--the two youngest children were buried together--lay in the sanctuary. Blue and white carnations lay on top of the four largest; pink and blue topped the smallest.
A pianist played "Amazing Grace" and "Jesus Loves the Little Children." Mourners received a program decorated with a drawing by one of the children, 3-year-old Elizabeth Willis: a stick-figure picture of her family.
The prayers and the eulogy at the Parkwood Baptist Church focused not on the tragedy, but on the family's faith. Not on what the children lost, but what they didn't have to endure. And the memories of children who were schooled by their parents.
"This family with their high, godly standards would be in more pain right now if these children . . . had gone off into a life of sin and debauchery," said the Rev. Don Voegtlin, who delivered the eulogy. "They would be in more pain now with them alive than they are with them passed on.
"Their children died good kids," he said.
The family was driving on a Milwaukee freeway when their minivan hit a piece of metal that had fallen off a truck and exploded in flames. Killed were Elizabeth and Peter, 6 weeks; Hank, 7; Sam, 9, and Joe, 11. Ben, 13, died a day later. The Willises have three older children.
Milwaukee County sheriff's deputies are still investigating the accident. The 29-year-old Chicago man who drove the truck has not been charged.
Voegtlin recalled meeting the Willises in the Milwaukee hospital the day after the Nov. 8 accident. The couple greeted him by reciting a verse from Job, the Old Testament story of a man who loses everything--including his children--but never his faith.
"The sad thing about all this is so many people do not want to believe their faith is real," Voegtlin said. "They want to believe it is some sort of trumped-up thing."
Reporters were kept out of the church, which was filled to capacity.
To the strains of "Amazing Grace" played inside the church, pallbearers, including the two oldest Willis boys, carried each white casket to separate charcoal-gray hearses.
Duane Willis hugged a boy who listened to the service from outside; Janet Willis wept as she made her way to a waiting car.
Under cloudy skies, the children were buried at Chapel Hill Gardens cemetery in suburban Worth. At the end of the burial service, Duane Willis asked photographers not to use the photographs they took of the family in front of the coffins.
"It's private time for us," he said.