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The Nation

1,200 Mourn 6 Children Killed in Blaze

In Chicago, loved ones as well as strangers attend the funeral for victims of an apartment fire. The tragedy has resonated in the community.

September 14, 2006|Oscar Avila | Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — In six white caskets were the remains of children who were strangers to most of their 1,200 mourners. But the emotional crowd at their funeral Wednesday claimed the young victims of a Rogers Park fire as its own.

The tragedy of two families who lost children resonated with fellow Mexican immigrants, who spilled onto the steps of St. Jerome Catholic Church. Most of the two-hour service was in Spanish.

But the funeral also drew others -- Nigerian immigrants, firefighters, classmates of the children. Neighbors leaned out apartment windows, and friends crowded the church steps under a steady rain.

They watched as the caskets were eased into a row of six silver hearses that inched around the corner.

Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago Gustavo Garcia-Siller slowly read the names of each of "our little ones."

"Kevin," he said softly.

"Bendito sea," the mourners responded, a prayer that the 3-year-old Ramirez boy would be blessed.

They repeated the blessing for Escarlet Ramos, 3; and for Kevin's siblings, Vanessa, 14, Eric, 12, Suzette, 10, and Idaly, 6.

"Very few of us have lived a situation like this one, but we can connect with you, Mr. and Mrs. Ramirez and Mrs. Ramos," Garcia-Siller said to the parents in the front pews. "As human beings, we can say in all honesty that we share your pain."

The children's deaths in the Sept. 3 fire have reverberated throughout the city. The Ramirez family lost five children. The sixth child was a friend whom they had been baby-sitting.

The Ramirez family's apartment had been without power for more than three months because they could not pay their bill. Authorities believe the blaze was caused by a candle used for light.

Residents of the diverse Rogers Park neighborhood have rallied around the family since the blaze. This week, well-wishers had donated more than $30,000 to help the families.

On Wednesday, landlord Jay Johnson expressed his condolences to the families in a statement. While "questions remain unanswered," he said internal investigations found that the family's apartment had smoke detectors during a September 2005 inspection. An inspection this week found that every other unit in the building had a working smoke detector, Johnson said.

The families have largely stayed silent since the tragedy, but the funeral helped give voice to their values and aspirations.

A family friend read an essay that Vanessa Ramirez had written about her mother last year as part of a tutoring program. Mourners sniffled, growing quieter as the words sunk in.

"When I grow up, I want to be like my mother and make her very proud so she can see that all her hard work has paid off," Ramirez wrote, adding that she hoped to be "a great doctor or teacher."

The essay concluded, "Even though [my mother's] life was very hard because she was very poor and had to work since she was very little, she is gentle and sweet to us. I don't know how my mother does it, but she has gotten us to where we are now with a better education and place to sleep."

Garcia-Siller said the families' character became clear to him during a meeting earlier that day. After the funeral, as he watched a procession of mourners driving away, he expressed his admiration to a small group of reporters.

"They are simple families, poor families, hard-working families," he said. "But they have great faith."

During the funeral, Garcia-Siller recalled how the families had brought their children to the church for baptisms, first Communions and other events. Their message, the bishop said, was that the children belonged not just to their families, but to God.

Now they belong to a city. At the end of his sermon, Garcia-Siller approached the front pews and embraced each parent.

"This," he said, "is in the name of all of us."

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