Traditional chanting by Ethiopian Orthodox Christian religious leaders opened the memorial service Friday morning at Key Arena for the five victims of last weekend’s fatal fire in Fremont.
Many arrived by shuttle from Yesler Community Center, where the East African community has been gathering all week to grieve alongside the victims’ families, members of Seattle’s Ethiopian community.
As the service began, a woman wailed as mourners, expected to reach 2,500 in number, continued entering the arena.
Killed in the swift-moving fire at Helen Gebregiorgis’ Fremont apartment were three of her children, Joseph Gebregiorgis, 13, Nisreen Shamam, 6, and Yaseen Shamam, 5; her sister, Yerusalem Gebregiorgis, 22; and a niece, 7-year-old Nyella Smith, daughter of a third sister,
The names of the dead were displayed on the electronic reader board above the crowd. Many in attendance were dressed in traditional attire, with women in flowing garments and white shawls known as netellas, worn at spiritual events.
Mayor Mike McGinn was among those who spoke.
“Your sorrow is our sorrow,” he told the mourners. “Your grief is Seattle’s grief.” His remarks, while brief, drew a round of appreciative response.
Also to address the mourners were Maria Goodloe-Johnson, superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, and local East African religious and community leaders. A letter of condolence from the Ethiopian Consulate in Los Angeles also was to be read.
A slideshow and musical presentation in honor of the dead were to conclude the event, which Daniel Gebregiorgis, brother of the Gebregiorgis sisters, said would mark the end of public mourning as the family turns its attention to helping Helen find a new home.
“We don’t know where Helen is going to go from here,” he said.
The Gebregiorgis siblings came to the U.S. in 1989 along with their refugee parents, who had fled their war-torn native country.
The memorial, originally set for the center’s Exhibition Hall, was moved to Key Arena because of the large number of expected attendees. “We didn’t want to be in a position where people would have to be turned away,” said Seattle Center spokeswoman Deborah Daoust.
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Some Seattle residents have questioned McGinn’s decision to provide the use of Key Arena for the service at taxpayer expense. Daoust said those costs — which she initially estimated at about $5,000 — were low because the arena was already configured for such a large-capacity stage event, having hosted several recent high-school graduation ceremonies.