More than 650 people, mostly Russian refugees, crowded into a memorial service Friday for five members of a Spokane family who died in a Bellingham house fire.
Family and friends listened solemnly during a 2 1/4-hour service of poetry, songs and sermons, all in Russian. The Berean Bible Church in the Spokane Valley reverberated with majestic Russian hymns and restrained, but deeply felt, emotions.
A woman wearing a blue scarf wept silently, pressing a flowered handkerchief to her eyes. A man held his sleeping toddler in one arm and wiped tears with his free hand.
“There are more ‘whys’ today than the people in this church,” said the Rev. Alexander Sipko, one of five men who preached.
“Did we really need this tragedy before we can reach out a hand to each other? Did we really need this tragedy before we can say, ‘Forgive me. I am guilty’?”
Pastors from several Russian Baptist churches in Spokane gave similar messages. They spoke of God’s comfort for people in grief. One told the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. One read the 23rd Psalm, which begins, “The lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
They warned the congregation no one knows when death will strike.
“People tend to think death hunts only the sick and elderly,” said the Rev. Nicolay Sizov. “But there are also many young, healthy and strong who are not thinking about dying. And Slavik (Vyacheslav) didn’t think about it either.”
Vyacheslav Solodyankin, 36, and his wife, Yelena, 35, died April 7 huddled over their children Vyacheslav Jr., 6, and Alina, 1. Another daughter, Valeriya, 14, died nearby.
Newcomers to the United States, they had fled their homeland of Kyrgyzstan less than a year ago seeking religious freedom.
Bellingham fire officials said a spark from a living room fireplace smoldered in a couch, filling the house with smoke before igniting.
The house, rented by Vyacheslav’s brother, Sergey Solodyankin, had three smoke detectors, but none had batteries. The Spokane family was visiting Bellingham during their children’s spring break from school.
Sergey Solodyankin, 38, and his wife, Olga, 35, were released from St. Joseph Hospital in Bellingham on Thursday. Their 8-year-old daughter Nadia also died in the fire.
The Spokane couple left five surviving children, two who escaped the fire with minor injuries and three who stayed behind with Spokane relatives because the car wasn’t large enough for the whole family to go to Bellingham.
“When I saw the children something got torn apart in me,” said the Rev. Boris Shiva during Friday’s service. “By looking at the children, I suddenly realized the true meaning of the word ‘orphans.”’
Bellingham and Spokane residents responded to the fire by donating thousands of dollars to the Red Cross and three bank accounts set up in the family’s name. In Bellingham, waitresses at one restaurant donated a night’s tips to the family.
The deaths also touched friends and relatives in Germany, Russia and Kyrgyzstan. Some relatives from Kyrgyzstan attended the service.
Sipko comforted the surviving Solodyankins, a large extended family from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, telling them they would meet their loved ones in heaven.
The family chose the Spokane Valley church for the service because of its large sanctuary and because church members had befriended many Russian families.
Television news cameras and several home video cameras recorded the service. After the final sermon, the congregation sang verse after verse of two Russian hymns while different branches of the Solodyankin family took turns standing together for photos at the altar.
Then the mourners drove to Pines Cemetery for a burial service. A large crowd circled the graves and sang while Russian teenage boys in leather jackets hung back outside of the circle, watching silently.
The deaths are the worst tragedy to strike Spokane’s new and growing Russian community, which began here in the late 1980s after Mikhail Gorbachev removed barriers to religious emigration from the Soviet Union.
Sipko, in a 30-minute sermon at the church, preached about the empty promises of materialism. He derided insurance policies that promise security, but offer no spiritual guarantees.
“With the great price of taking from us our relatives and friends, God today forced us to lift up our heads so we can see what’s happening around us,” Sipko said.
Sergei Cemenenkoff served as an interpreter for this report.