Thousands Mourn Cleveland Fire Victims

CLEVELAND (AP) -- Thousands of mourners, some crying and holding each other for support, offered an emotional farewell Tuesday to eight of nine people killed in a house fire during a birthday sleepover.

''I love you all,'' said Evelyn Martin, grandmother of six young victims and mother of Medeia Carter, 33, who died in the fire with four of her six children.

''I thank God she went with her babies,'' said Martin, describing how close her daughter was with her children. Relatives and friends have described Carter as a neighborhood mom who welcomed her children's friends to her home and dinner table.

Police Chief Michael C. McGrath, who attended the two-hour service, estimated the crowd at 4,000 at the Cleveland Convention Center.

Rev. Wesley Toles of Covenant Baptist Church in suburban Wickliffe knew many of the victims since they were born and encouraged mourners to believe that the victims were with God.

''They were all good people,'' he said. ''The souls of all of them have already gone back to God.''

The cause of the pre-dawn fire May 21 in a poor neighborhood about three miles from downtown is under investigation, although the fire department said it apparently was accidental. All the victims died of smoke inhalation.

Family members approached the coffins, five of them open and lined up end-to-end in front of the stage, before the service began. Some mourners were supported on both arms by relatives or attendants in white outfits and using cardboard fans to cool off those overcome with grief.

Instrumental church worship music played by a band on stage muffled the sobs.

''I've never seen nothing so sad in my life,'' said Robert Ivery, 34, who grew up with Carter and knew her children. ''For so many homes and families and hearts to be touched in the way that they have with so many losses.''

Ivery said it would take time to heal the pain of his grief. ''I'm really hurting right now. I'm pretty sure I'll pick up the pieces as the family will and we can all go on,'' he said.

Edward Banks, 34, whose sons gave mourners copies of a song that they recorded in honor of the victims, said he was impressed with the outpouring of support by the community, including use of the convention center hall, free shuttle buses and donated funeral services. The 67,000-student Cleveland school system, Ohio's biggest, was closed for the day so classmates and teachers would attend the service.

''I see a whole lot of support,'' he said. ''It easily could have been our family. We had kids at our home last night.''

A funeral service for the ninth victim, a friend of the extended Carter family, was held Saturday. One man escaped unharmed from the fire, which critically burned a woman whose condition was upgraded last week to fair.

Fire officials said they found smoke detectors in the home but weren't sure if they were working.

The Rev. R.A. Vernon of The Word Church, who presided over the service, compared it to a religious revival and predicted it would lead to renewed faith. ''I believe God is going to do something today,'' he said.

Mayor Jane Campbell led the mourners in applauding firefighters, EMS crew members and police officers who responded to the fire and said the tragedy had unified the city.

''This has been an extraordinary effort by this community,'' she said.

At a viewing Monday, an estimated 3,500 people filed past the caskets.

Burial for all nine was arranged at Whitehaven Memorial Park in suburban Richmond Heights in plots donated by a retired police detective and the cemetery.