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Funeral service held for 12 family members who died in the Fairmount fire

Over three hours, the 12 victims were eulogized as loving sisters and supportive siblings; a talented athlete and giving classmate; a graceful ballerina and sassy toddler.

In an extraordinary public display of grief, the family of 12 people killed in a Fairmount rowhouse fire held a funeral service at Temple University on Monday morning, celebrating their loved ones in the embrace of hundreds of mourners.

“God is about community,” preached the Rev. Alyn E. Waller, senior pastor of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, who led the service at the Liacouras Center. “And maybe this family has been chosen to help us see the beauty of — and remember the importance of — community.”

Friends, family and strangers — all encouraged to wear white — gathered to remember three sisters and their nine children who died on the morning of Jan. 5 when flames and smoke swept through their Fairmount apartment.

Over three hours, the 12 victims were eulogized as loving sisters and supportive siblings; a talented athlete and giving classmate; a graceful ballerina and sassy toddler.

Fire investigators said last week that they were nearly certain the blaze began when a 5-year-old boy playing with a lighter accidentally lit a Christmas tree on the second floor. Flames and thick smoke quickly rose to the third floor, where 13 family members slept.

» READ MORE: Remembering the 12 victims of the Fairmount fire

The 5-year-old, and a father to four of the children, survived. That man, Howard Robinson, spoke at the service, having spent a week in the hospital after jumping from a third-floor window to escape the blaze.

Sitting in a wheelchair, his right arm wrapped in a cast, his voice first brimmed with joy as he shared stories of his late family, then trembled as he gazed at the coffins beside him.

The five occupants of the lower unit in the building, which is owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, also survived.

The victims were Rosalee McDonald, 33, Quintien Tate-McDonald, 16; Destiny McDonald, 15; Dekwan Robinson, 8; J’Kwan Robinson, 5; Taniesha Robinson, 3; Tiffany Robinson, 2; Virginia Thomas, 30; Shaniece Wayne, 10; Natasha Wayne, 8; Janiyah Roberts, 3; and Quinsha White, 18.

An organ played overhead as nearly 200 family members and friends — only part of the total number of people at the service — emerged from a tunnel like a flock of doves, and filled chairs stationed at the center of the floor. Mayor Jim Kenney sat in the front row, alongside numerous high-ranking police and fire officials, and City Council members.

At the head of the stage were 10 white-and-gold coffins draped in white lilies, hydrangeas, and roses. Two of the young children were together with their mothers.

Upward of a dozen family members spoke throughout the program, including Robinson.

The longtime partner of Rosalee McDonald said that in the weeks before the fire, he was in the hospital recovering from heart surgery. He had finally returned home on Jan. 4, and surprised his children, nieces, and nephews. Less than 24 hours later, the fire would claim nearly all of them.

“I still thank God,” he said. “He gave me that one day.”

Cousin Dominique Cook shared stories about growing up with Rosalee and Virginia — how they were “the big family with all the kids on the block,” and enjoyed sleep-overs and pool parties well into adulthood.

“It’s a family reunion in heaven,” said Aunt Sallie Thomas, whose late brother was the father of some of the kids.

Patty Jackson, radio announcer for WDAS 105.3, read sympathy cards from the community. Then, she opened a folder, which held the high school diploma of 18-year-old Quinsha White. She had been set to graduate from YesPhilly High School in May.

A clergy member lifted her black cap and gown into the air to a standing ovation from the crowd.

The service ended with Waller, who wove together a collection of intimate stories of each person lost, lessons about God’s love and the religious doubts following a tragedy. He spoke so forcefully that he nearly sang.

He said that when a Christmas morning fire in Quakertown claimed the lives of a father and his two sons, the media “reported it like ‘look what happened to them.’ And then they reported this fire like, ‘Look what they did.’”

“But maybe God wanted to pick a family to show those that think we always into something, to show those what real family looks like,” he said to claps and shouts of agreement.

He closed the service by reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

And although it had rained all morning, as the service ended and attendees flooded the sidewalks, the blue-gray sky cleared, and there was a stillness in the air. There was no honking, no sirens. Just the soaring sounds of gospel music playing from a set of outdoor speakers, and the quiet hum of 10 hearses, the first draped in white flowers, lined up on Broad Street.

As the procession, led by police escorts, headed north toward Chelten Hill Cemetery, the clouds above City Hall briefly parted, and the sun shone through.