Five tiny white steel caskets lined the front row of Faith Temple No. 2 Free Will Baptist Church. Large photographs were attached to floral wreaths. And next to them were the Christmas toys that were promised two weeks ago.
More than 500 friends and relatives gathered at the Seat Pleasant church yesterday to offer sympathy and hope to the family that lost six children -- including 7-month-old twins -- in a fire that raced through their home as they slept Thanksgiving morning.
"How can you be thankful on Thanksgiving Day when something like this happens?" Bishop L.N. Forbes asked mourners.
"Well, I say you can because He could have taken everybody. He took only those who were ready. Heaven is a prepared place for prepared people," Forbes said to thunderous approval.
The fire spared James H. and Annie Mae Williams, son James Kelvin Williams, daughters Sandra Gail Williams and Tracey Williams-Ahmad, son-in-law Clifton Stephan Ahmad, and two grandsons, James Q.R. and Samuel A.J. Williams.
Twins Emmanuel Matthew and Nathaniel Mark Williams, born to Sandra Williams, were buried in the same casket. Enlarged black-and-white photographs of the children were attached to multicolored wreaths of gladioluses, chrysanthemums and carnations atop each casket.
Next to the flowers were toys: a radio-operated car for 10-year-old Joshua Ramont Williams, a "Webby" duck doll for 1-year-old Shenna N. Ahmad, a talking Mickey Mouse doll and a Mickey Mouse storybook for 2-year-old Justin Ahmad, and a train for 5-year-old Clifton Stephan Ahmad Jr.
Prince George's County Fire Department investigators say they believe that the fire began on the first floor of the modest fame house and raced up the stairway to the bedrooms where the children slept with their parents. The cause is still under investigation, but a fire department source said that investigators are "90 percent sure it was not the kerosene heater."
During yesterday's service, Forbes chose not to dwell on the Williamses' heartache but to concentrate on what positive aspect he could find.
"We are not worried about their souls, because they are with Jesus," Forbes said of the children who perished in the blaze. "They are better off than we are," he said.
The Williams family sat in their six church pews relatively unmoved.
State Sen. Decatur W. Trotter (D-Prince George's) said: "These young people have not died in vain. They have met their Jesus." Echoing a sign that hung in the church's entrance, Trotter intoned, "We loved you, God knows we loved you. But God loved you best."
As a full choir sang and swayed to foot tapping and clapping by the audience, organist Estelle Wheeler played "Jesus Loves the Little Children of the World" and "Precious Memories," each requested by Annie Mae Williams. Williams told Wheeler that she had often sung the first song for her children when they were young and that "precious memories" were all that she had left.
As ushers helped the grief-stricken Williamses out of the church, family friend Deborah Banks stood in the small churchyard with a baby's bottle in her coat pocket, clutching the hand of her 1-year-old daughter, Rosalyn. Half a foot away stood another daughter, 4-year-old Crystal, blinking and confused by the excitement.
"It's a shock," said Deborah Banks, who said she had known the Williams family for 15 years. "It gives me a lot to be thankful for. That's for sure."
A funeral procession led by motorcycle police and stretching more than a mile wound down Addison Road in Seat Pleasant, passing within a block but out of sight of the Williamses' charred home on 69th Street and toward the Lincoln Cemetery, about four miles away in Suitland. There, on top of a slope facing the city, the five caskets were laid to rest. Forbes asked that the children be accepted into heaven and then stepped aside, allowing a Moslem minister to offer a prayer in Arabic for the three Ahmad children.
Church members said yesterday that they had collected nearly $5,000 in cash and checks for the family. Donations of clothing and furniture for a living and dining room had also been made. But the family, now six adults and the two surviving grandchildren who were pulled to safety at the time of the fire, continue to look for a house. They have moved into the small apartment of a nearby relative for the time being but continue to search for more space.