Monday, September 12, 2005

Town bids farewell to 6 children

Mourners filled the church during the funeral of the six Bryant children, who died in a house explosion in Michigan.

RIPPLEMEAD - Six coffins resting end-to-end stretched the breadth of the altar at Riverview Baptist Church on Sunday afternoon.

The coffins were arranged in a line from the oldest to the youngest of the Giles County children they held - Rebekah Bryant, 19, and her siblings Joseph, 10; Nehemiah, 9; Martina, 7; David, 4; and 2-year-old Jackson. The six Bryant children were killed in an explosion at a relative's house in Michigan on Sept. 3. On Sunday, a community stunned by the tragedy gathered to say goodbye.

As people filed into pews at the log church, 9-year-old Jacob Torbert stood silently, looking down at his cousin Joseph, dressed in a football jersey inside his casket.

After watching Joseph for several minutes, Torbert suddenly bent down, picked up a rose and laid it on his cousin's chest.

"We liked to play football and soldiers," Torbert said after the funeral. "Sometimes we would just play in our bare feet, running around."

On Friday, officials in Michigan had not yet determined the cause of the explosion that killed the six Bryant children. The family believes it was caused by a gas leak.

The children had traveled to Michigan with their mother, Joyce Bryant, to visit family over Labor Day weekend. Their father, Mark Bryant, stayed home with their daughter Kameron and planned to travel to Michigan to join the family on Labor Day.

Two Bryant children - 6-year-old Sarah and 14-year-old Caleb - survived the explosion and are being treated at a hospital in Michigan. Joyce Bryant was out of the house at the time of the explosion and has stayed in Michigan with Caleb and Sarah.

During the funeral service, Mark Bryant and the children's grandfather Joe Bryant spoke to the congregation.

"This is hard, so please bear with me," Mark Bryant said as he stood at the altar, a photo of Sarah and Caleb in the hospital projected on a screen behind him.

Sarah suffered a broken leg, a broken collarbone and a punctured lung in the explosion, Bryant said in a steady voice. Caleb has burns on his face and his legs.

Bryant said he expects their physical wounds to heal. But he has not yet told them about the deaths of their brothers and sisters.

"They don't know anything. They don't know what happened. They don't know about our babies here," Bryant said glancing down at his children's coffins.

Bryant broke down several times as he described each child.

Jackson, the youngest, loved dogs. David loved playing in the dirt. Martina sang hymns all day long and slept with a pink stuffed kitten. Nehemiah liked to dress up in a suit, like his accountant father did when he went to work at his office in Blacksburg. Joseph liked to hunt and fish. Rebekah, the oldest, vowed to never kiss a boy until the day she got married.

Bryant said he isn't trying to understand what happened to his children or question why they died. A deeply religious man, he said he will not question his God. His religion and community support are pulling him through his grief, he said.

"I felt your prayers and I truly appreciate it," he said.

The outpouring of grief among the church's congregation and people in the New River Valley and beyond has been tremendous, said Shahn Wilburn, pastor of Riverview Baptist.

A day after the children died, Wilburn informed his congregation of the tragedy during Sunday services.

"He got up there and we knew something was wrong," David Cole said after the funeral. "I've never seen anything like it," the Blacksburg police officer added. "People were just completely stunned."

Wilburn, as he spoke during the funeral service, looked toward the example of Job to explain the deaths of the Bryant children and the faith of their parents. The Bible says Job fell to his knees and worshiped after a violent storm knocked down a house and killed his children, the minister said.

"We can choose to be angry and bitter. Or we can choose to trust God and walk in his peace," Wilburn said.

After the final prayer, a violinist played "Amazing Grace." Thirty-six men dressed in black and gray suits stood up and carried the six coffins one-by-one from the church and loaded them into six hearses.

Jacob Torbert walked beside Joseph Bryant's casket.

Outside, Jacob and his 14-year-old brother, Joshua, talked about their lost cousins.

Jacob will wear a picture of Joseph on the right shoulder of his Pembroke Spartans football uniform this season. "So when he is tackling, it will be Joseph tackling too," Joshua said.

In their incredible sadness, neither brother shed a tear.

"God is with us and he has been helpful," Jacob said. "God is good."

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