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Hundreds mourn grandmother, three children who died trapped in Tampa fire

Arthur James is consoled by family members after funeral services for his sister Sheryl James, who died with three of her grandchildren when a fire broke out overnight at their house on E Paris Street in Tampa.

TAMPA

The crowded church rose together and filled the silence with gospel music.

They sang as hundreds of family — cradling babies, guiding the elderly — slowly filed past four ivory coffins.

The smallest, just a few feet long, held Emjay Jackson, 3.

To the left lay his big brother Romello Jackson and their cousin Reshard Ashley, both 8.

The largest coffin bore their grandmother, 61-year-old Sheryl James.

It had been 11 days since a predawn electrical fire engulfed their home on E Paris Street. Burglar bars guarding the doors and windows trapped them inside.

The grandmother, Emjay and Reshard died Sept. 1. The next day, Romello was taken off life support.

In the days that followed, neighbors, family and friends lit candles and mourned outside the charred house. At Sheehy Elementary School, a day started with a moment of silence.

But at Saturday's funeral, where grief could have reigned, there was joy.

"Even though it's a sad time, we still have to lift our hands and tell the Lord thank you," psalmist Paula Watkins said. "The Bible says joy is on the way."

The pews at the Center for Manifestation were filled with James' children, her grandchildren and their large extended families. The two oldest boys' principal and teachers were there, as well as their friends.

They numbered in the hundreds. They stood together, sang together and sobbed together. They raised their hands in praise of the Lord, and extended them to each other for support.

The grandmother's brother, Arthur James, was the first to speak.

He said he knew his sister would be happy to see them all together.

He asked his relations to forgive each other and forget the past.

"Reach out," he said.

A young member of the family performed a praise dance, bringing the church to its feet once again.

Then young Regginae Ashley took the microphone. The teenager talked about losing her younger brother Reshard, her two cousins and her grandmother. She called them "the loves of my life, four pieces of my heart."

She reminded the room that her grandmother, who badly wanted to see her graduate high school, wouldn't want all of them "sitting in here moping."

"She was always with her babies," she said. "She left with her babies, her loves, even though she screamed and hollered at them every day."

The crowd laughed.

Other speakers remembered Sheryl James for her nurturing nature, the way she acted like "everybody's mama."

The funeral program revealed more about the fire victims:

"She was a loving and kindhearted woman who loved and had a heart of gold," the program read. She loved listening to oldies and cheering on the Tampa Bay Rays.

Reshard gave constant compliments and kisses. He was a peacemaker who liked fast cars and cartoons.

Emjay, a chatterbox, wanted to drive "big trucks." He loved to eat and play outside.

Romello was quiet, and an athlete. He liked kickball and playing with his tablet.

Joy, though, could only last so long at a funeral. At the end of the service, pastor Antonio Hawkins of Exciting Faith Alive Church talked about the Bible and the book of Job. He spoke of helplessness and steadfast faith, of how Job asked God to hide him from his pain.

He brought the mourners back to the fire, to Sheryl James and the boys.

"I can imagine her crying up to the Lord," Hawkins said. "My house is on fire, somebody hide me. Somebody hide my babies."

He talked about the smoke and flames, how there was no way out.

"On that Sept. 1 morning, she said: Come on babies. One thing is certain, I'm not going through this without you."

Once the singing and the praising and crying was done, the pallbearers walked to the front of the sanctuary. One by one, they slowly rolled the ivory coffins toward four white hearses.

Sheryl James and her three grandchildren were buried together at Rest Haven Memorial Park Cemetery.

During the service, Arthur James reminded mourners that wherever his sister went, her grandchildren went, too.

"I know for sure she is so happy to see this right now," the brother said. "I know for sure she's happy, and she has taken her grandbabies with her."

Contact Katie Mettler at kmettler@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @kemettler.

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