Community grieves, supporting family torn by fatal fire



Posted on June 14, 2010 at 6:54 AM

Updated Thursday, Jun 24 at 5:40 PM

SEATTLE -- A grieving community tries to move forward after a devastating fire killed five members of a family, including four young children, in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood Saturday.

Support is pouring in front of the family's home, where flowers, balloons and notes are constantly being added to a growing memorial there. A memorial for the victims is also planned for 11 a.m. Friday at the Seattle Center's Exhibition Hall.

Today, grief counselors will be at Whitman Middle School, where the oldest victim of the fire, 13-year-old Joseph Gebrgiorgis attended. They will help his friends and teachers cope with the tragedy. Counselors will also be on hand at Greenwood and Leschi elementary schools, where two of the younger victims attended.

Countless students at Whitman arrived for class clutching colorful bouquets of flowers. It is the best way they know to show just how much they miss their 13 year old classmate Joseph Gebregiorgis.

"Well, it kind of ruined my day on Saturday when I found out what happened. I pretty bummed out about it," said Adrian Releford.

Adrian dressed in black to show his respect, and brought a card as well.

"Trying slowly to get over it, trying to take my mind off it and stuff," he said.

But it's not just students who are suffering.

"He was a great kid. You just couldn't help not noticing him. He always had a smile and cute dimples," said Rose Bumgarner, a security guard at Whitman.

She says Joseph was a popular student because he was so nice. She said her number one goal is to be strong for the kids who depend on her.

"Just listening, and letting them cry and get it out," she said.

One parent said Joseph's death sparked a conversation with his kids over the weekend.  He hopes it will remind families to check their smoke detectors and that it will be an opportunity for parents to talk about faith, and life.

"The cycle of life perhaps, you know, it's just unfortunate that, how do you, with that type of an ending of lives, both adult and children, there is, that's just not an easy answer. There isn't any happy storybook ending," said Gene Thorkildsen.

One woman and a child, Helen Gebregiorgis and her 5-year-old niece Samarah Smith, escaped the fire Saturday morning, but five other family members were trapped by flames in an upstairs bathroom: Helen's sons Joseph Gebrigiorgias, 13, and Nisreen Shaman, 6; Helen's daughter Yaseen Shaman, 5; Helen's sister Eyerusalem Gebregiorgis, 22; and Helen's niece, Nyella Smith, 7. Officials say they are all of Eritrean descent.

In terms of the investigation, authorities are expected to release a timeline Monday detailing what is currently known from start to finish about the fire and the rescue operation. Many questions remain, including what actually started the fire and what caused a malfunction in the first engine that arrived, which prevented water from being sprayed on the fire immediately.

The fire department says investigators have no reason to believe Saturday's fire was suspicious.

Fire investigators are meeting with mechanics and fleet managers to figure out what went wrong with the first engine. Firefighters said they had tested that first fire engine just hours before the fire and it was in good working order.

The Seattle Fire Department plans to hold a follow-up meeting to discuss what happened with the community.

Community organizing fundraisers for family

On Monday, neighbors will hold a potluck to raise money for the family, while Joseph's basketball team will hold their second of two car washes.

There are other ways the community is trying to help the family affected by this fire. The Fremont Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club plans to set up a bank account for public donations.

The Red Door Bar says it will take donations for the family, which will go into a bank account, and there's a potluck fundraiser Monday night at 6:00 p.m. at 330 NW 41st Street. contributed to this report.