Wakonda mourns Pallbearers wheel the flower-strewn caskets of Allyson, Austin, Cole and Carli Eckert to two waiting hearses following Tuesday afternoon's funeral services in the Wakonda High School gymnasium. By David Lias Six-year-old Cole Eckert loved everything about the outdoors.
He played soccer, he was a Cub Scout and he enjoyed hunting and fishing.
His special talent, however, was watching over his big brother, Austin.
Cole and Austin, 11, were laid to rest Tuesday, appropriately in a shared casket in Pleasant Valley Cemetery, rural Wakonda.
The boys� two sisters, Carli, 4, and Allyson, 17, were also buried there, together in one casket.
The four children of Brian and Rhonda Eckert of rural Wakonda died early Friday morning, Jan. 7, in a house fire.
People of Wakonda and the surrounding area responded the best they could. Counselors visited with students and adults.
Candlelight vigils were held. Fund drives were begun.
And Tuesday, people came to Wakonda to say goodbye.
Fewer than 400 people call the town home. Approximately 800 local citizens joined Eckert family members at their children�s funeral.
An empty lot near the school was cleared of snow to provide needed parking spaces. The day was brisk; people�s footsteps crunched in the cold as they neared the gym.
Those who stood in lines outside were in no hurry to escape the cold. This gym, used to the day-to-day hustle and bustle of student athletes, had transformed into a sacred place.
In the lobby, poinsettias that just last month helped usher in the Christmas season adorned a hallway.
Tables were filled with photographs of the four siblings. Some were still in frames, others were snapshots placed on large pieces of poster board.
People stopped to see images of the Eckert children grinning, vibrant and full of life.
The line of visitors slowly proceeded into the gymnasium. Rows of folding chairs stayed empty for a time, as people approached the two caskets, located near one end of the basketball court.
They were adorned with sprays of flowers. Several stands located nearby held dozens of plants, offering splashes of color.
People of all ages eventually began finding a place to settle in the gym. There were ruddy-faced farmers, more accustomed to wearing overalls and work boots on a Tuesday afternoon, cleaned and scrubbed and wearing suits.
Little girls and boys, looking awe-struck at times, rarely strayed far from their parents� laps.
In the bleachers, a group of teen-aged girls, wearing Wakonda High School letter jackets, tried and failed to console each other.
Shortly before the service began, the WHS Class of 2005 � Allyson�s classmates � filed in. They, as honorary pallbearers, sat behind members of the Eckert family.
Space was also reserved up front for members of the Wakonda Volunteer Fire Department and the First Responders, who tried in vain to save the family�s children.
Rev. Leon Shulz opened the service by reading familiar, comforting passages from the Bible.
He also read a portion of each child�s obituary.
�Our prayer is that each one of us may in some way support the Eckert family and each other,� Shulz said.
Pianist Laurie Hanson accompanied the crowd as it sang Jesus Loves Me. Alex Nielsen, one of Allyson�s classmates, rose and flipped on a slide projector that beamed more images of the Eckert children for all to see.
There were several shots of Ally and her friends in formal gowns, beaming; of Carli enjoying the outdoors or in her tap shoes; of Austin with his Special Olympics medals and Cole in his Cub Scout uniform.
Rev. Larry Parvin began his message by jokingly announcing no one could leave town without first stopping at the Legion Hall hall for lunch following the service.
The moment of levity worked. He and the people who were there to hear his message were able to briefly contain their emotions.
�Wakonda, thank you for demonstrating the love that God demonstrated for us on Calvary�s cross through the Lord Jesus Christ,� Parvin said.
Shortly after the fire, he said he was contacted by a television reporter who asked what it would take to see the Eckert family and the Wakonda community through this tragedy.
�I looked right into that camera, and I said, ?our faith in the Lord Jesus,�� Parvin said.
He shared the Christmas story, and the account of Christ raising Lazarus from the dead.
Christ, Parvin said, �will also raise our children from the dead ? he will help us. He will take care of us. Thank you all for demonstrating the love that God continually provides to us.�
The Clay County Sheriff�s Department and the office of the state fire marshal haven�t concluded their investigation of the fatal blaze.
Officials at Wakonda School became concerned last Friday when none of the Eckert children arrived for class. A call was made to Rhonda Eckert, who works at the Sioux Valley Hospital campus in Sioux Falls, and usually leaves home for work before 4 a.m.
A relative was first at the scene at about 9 a.m. The house was filled with smoke.
Clay County Sheriff Andy Howe said there were smoke detectors on the main and second floors of the house, and they were sounding as law enforcement and rescue personnel arrived.
The children apparently died of smoke inhalation.
The fire, Howe said, began on the main floor.
Benefit funds have been established to help the Eckert family. Donations may be made at any First Premier Bank location. The Eckerts� home branch is at 115 Ohio Street, Wakonda, SD 57073.
Donations also may be sent to the Sioux Valley Foundation. Call (605) 328-5700.