Wearing a head brace, Daniel Griffin Jr. stood in front of friends and relatives filling a Northeast Baltimore church yesterday to remember his wife, Bethany, and four children and stepchildren killed in an Ohio highway collision that police say was caused by a drunken driver.
"I still don't know to this day how I'm here, how Beau's here, how Sydney's here," said Griffin, of Parkville, referring to the two children who survived the Dec. 30 crash, in which he was injured. "I just want to thank all of you for all of your support. ... We've just been overwhelmed with the amount of support by our friends, the family, the country itself."
"It's just been an unreal and unbelievable experience for us all," said Griffin, addressing the packed pews at St. Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church. "I lost a wife and four kids, and it hurts me tremendously to even get up here and say that."
The lives of Bethany L. Griffin, 36; Jordan Griffin, 10; Vadie Griffin, 8 weeks; Haley Burkman, 10; and Lacie Burkman, 7, were celebrated in a memorial service yesterday, as friends and family stood to share their memories.
Griffin and his wife had been returning home to Parkville with the six children after spending the holidays with relatives in Michigan when their minivan was struck by a pickup truck heading the wrong way on Interstate 280.
Sydney Griffin, 8, was discharged Monday afternoon from St. Vincent Mercy Children's Hospital in Toledo, Ohio, spokeswoman Sarah Bednarski said - a fact that Griffin noted, sparking applause, at the church yesterday. Beau Burkman, 8, was released from the hospital a day after the crash.
Among the mourners yesterday were students and staff from Carney Elementary School, which the Burkman girls attended with their brother, Beau. Principal Eileen Roberta said a memorial to the children would be placed in the school courtyard.
Youngsters were given bottles of blowing bubbles during the children's portion of the service and told to use them to send their love to their friends. Haley and Lacie's favorite song from High School Musical, "We're All in This Together," was played.
Bethany Griffin's siblings recalled a woman passionate about family, politics and her country.
"I'm going to miss her every day for the rest of my life, especially on Election Day," one sister said.
Large photographs of Bethany Griffin and the four children were placed at the front of the sanctuary. A banner for writing messages spanned a "memorial wall" in the church, with a photograph of the family in the center. Many attending the service wore shades of blue, Bethany Griffin's favorite color.
"Do you know how many people are here?" said the Rev. Lisa Arrington, pastor of St. Luke. "There are people gathering with us all across the country."
She read messages of support posted online from people in Texas, Oklahoma, South Carolina and California. "I have never seen anything like this," she said.
The driver of the pickup that hit the van, Michael P. Gagnon, 24, of Adrian, Mich., appeared briefly in a Toledo courtroom yesterday for a preliminary hearing on five counts of aggravated vehicular homicide. The hearing was continued to tomorrow.
Police say Gagnon's blood-alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit when he slammed his truck into the family's minivan. The impact of the crash tore away the passenger side of the van, and several family members and their belongings were thrown from the vehicle.
Yesterday's memorial service was the scene of a demonstration by a group that was recently ordered to pay millions for protesting at the Westminster funeral of a soldier killed in Iraq.
Three members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, known for protests at military funerals, were demonstrating about a block from the church in the 7000 block of Harford Road.
The demonstrators said the deaths are God's retaliation against the community for the $11 million award by a jury in Baltimore against the Kansas group.
"It is shocking and horrible to even acknowledge that they're here," Arrington said of the demonstrators. "They do not reflect the Christian church. They do not reflect God's love or God's people."
Toward the end of the service, Griffin reiterated his thanks for the support his family has received throughout the tragedy.
"I just want all of you ... just embrace your kids and just remember how precious life really is and how things can change in a moment's notice," Griffin said. "Just appreciate everything you have with your kids and your families and friends."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.