Too young to understand the weight of the occasion, 2-year-old Madison Etchison quietly played with her doll, her 3-year-old brother's small white and gold casket a few feet away, as the Etchison family, their friends and neighbors gathered on Tuesday to say goodbye to their "lil' angel," Darrel Wayne "D.J." Etchison Jr.
"Death is always a difficult thing," said the Rev. Nate Germany, a pastor at the 18th Street Community Church in Altoona. "But this one ... this one ... this passing away of this 3-year-old and the circumstances involved ... this one had me tossing and turning in my sleep."
The funeral for D.J. Etchison Jr. at the Myers-Somers Funeral Home on Sixth Avenue came nearly two weeks after an arson fire claimed the preschooler's life while he slept in the family's East End home.
Brandy Jo Etchison attends the funeral service for her son, Darrel Wayne “D.J.”?Etchison Jr., on Tuesday morning at Myers-Somers Funeral Home.
Mirror photos by Gary M. Baranec
Darrel Wayne Etchison Sr. approaches the casket of his son, 3-year-old D.J., at the conclusion of the boy’s funeral service on Tuesday morning at Myers-Somers Funeral Home.
Mirror photos by Gary M. Baranec
Darrel Wayne Etchison Sr. (far left)?watches as (from left)?D.J. Etchison’s niece Amaris McNatt, 2, and his sisters Janaya Reyes, 17, and Madison Etchison, 2, play with a doll in front of D.J.’s casket Tuesday at Myers-Somers Funeral Home.
At the conclusion of the funeral service for 3-year-old D.J. Etchison, Bonnie Hoover and Bobby Hines, neighbors of the Etchisons, pause to look at some family photos.
D.J.'s mother, Brandy Etchison, who in the days after the fire remained in an induced coma in a Pittsburgh hospital, was there to see her son laid to rest, her husband, Darrel Etchison Sr., at her side.
D.J. Etchison Jr. died at Altoona Regional on Nov. 15 after Altoona firefighters pulled him from the burning duplex at 112 S. Second St. The man police said set the fire, Aaron Wilson Dishong, 62, of East Freedom, allegedly did so because he mistakenly believed an estranged paramour was staying with the Etchisons. Brandy Etchison escaped with Madison by jumping out a third-story window
Dishong remains in Blair County Prison without bail on homicide, arson and other charges and is due in court in a week for a preliminary hearing at Central Court, a block from the funeral home.
A fund was set up for the Etchison family, who lost everything in the Nov. 15 fire. Checks can be made payable to Benefit for Brandy and Darrel Etchison Sr. and sent c/o M&T Bank, Pleasant Valley Branch, 615 Pleasant Valley Blvd., Altoona, PA 16602.
Inside the funeral home, snapshots of smiling little faces pasted to posterboard showed happier times. Nearby, white carnations, red roses and white lilies accented with baby's breath adorned the small casket, as did a large, framed photo of D.J., with the words, "Our lil' angel going home," stretched across the bottom.
"Listen, it's times like this when we question our faith," Germany said. "It's horrific tragedies like this when we say, 'Why, God? Why? Why?'"
Germany recalled talking to Darrel Etchison Sr. and said he told the grieving father to "trust Jesus."
"And he said, 'I know, Nate. Everybody keeps saying that, but right now I don't understand. Why is this happening? How could God allow this to happen?'"
Germany said for such a question, there are no easy answers.
"God had no part in this," Germany exclaimed, relating what he told Darrel Etchison Sr. "God had no part in this. This was an act of pure evil. This was an act of pure evil.
"You see there's good in this world and there's bad in this world," Germany said, adding that God gives people free will. "You can serve God, or you can serve the devil, but you're going to serve one or the other. There is no in-between."
Earlier in the service, Al Futrell's soulful rendition of "My Everything," brought the heavy emotion of the room to the surface, as people sobbed, embraced and remembered the little boy who loved his puppy, Jada, and enjoyed doing what little boys do - playing, eating freeze pops and watching movies and "Power Rangers," as his sister Kayla Reyes noted as she read his obituary.
Germany recited the story of Jesus and the little children, reciting Matthew 19:14.
"Jesus said, 'Suffer the little children and forbid them not to come unto me,'" Germany said. "'For such is the kingdom of Heaven.'"
While there is pain and sorrow in D.J.'s death, Germany admitted, there is also the hope of knowing he is in heaven and that one day he will be reunited with those who loved him.
"But until we get there, D.J. will always be in our memories," Germany said.
Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.