Their devastated mum, Una Butler, watched as the two white coffins containing the remains of her daughters, Zoe, six, and Ella, two, were carried into their local church in Ballycotton, Co Cork, for a Mass of the Angels.
Their remains had made the short trip from the family home, where Una had cradled and kissed them upon their return on Thursday.
Their father’s body made its journey from the home to Cobh earlier yesterday, stopping for a short while at the still-scorched ditch where he died, to allow flowers to be laid.
Una clutched her daughters’ baptismal candles and walked into the church, as young cousins carried some of Zoe and Ella’s toys, including a Hello Kitty teddy bear and Lego bricks.
They were placed on the altar along with Zoe’s judo medal and the baptismal candles. Two floral displays, one spelling Zoe, the other Ella, were placed next to the coffins.
Hundreds packed into the church for the Mass which was concelebrated by Fr Aidan Crowley, Very Rev Canon Donal O’Mahony, Rev Walter Hill from Youghal, Monsignor Eamon Gould, Fr Anthony O’Brien, Fr Michael Madden, Fr Tommy Wade and Fr Canon John Terry.
The hundreds more who huddled outside heard Fr Crowley describe the sisters as “two beautiful little girls, two little princesses”.
He described Ella as like any other good, mischievous two-year-old, who loved her big sister. He told of how she had enjoyed dancing at a recent Halloween party so much that she refused to leave the dance-floor.
He told of how she had managed to lock herself into a wardrobe, which had to be dismantled to free her.
And he told of Zoe’s understanding for her.
“She was a very caring, outgoing, understanding little girl,” he said.
He said Zoe, an accomplished gymnast, loved her school, Scoil Réalt na Mara, and would arrive in to first class every morning with a spring in her step. As part of a school project, she had recently grown broccoli from seed and she posed proudly for a photograph. He recalled how Zoe told a teacher who helped her tie her shoes one morning: “Aren’t these the most beautiful shoes you’ve ever seen?”
Fr Crowley said the family had everything going for them and that everything seemed to be alright.
“We ask ourselves today: ‘What went wrong?’”
But he said that question wouldn’t be answered today as people try to decipher what happened. He quoted a verse written by Cork author Fr Jerome Kiely, which read: “The silence burned. Where were the words to dress the scalded parents?”
He also spoke directly to the many children in the congregation and told them it is OK to be sad, and to cry.
And he told Una that she has the support of the entire parish.
As the coffins were carried from the church, two of Zoe and Ella’s cousins blew bubbles, which wafted high into the sky, moving many mourners to tears.
Una then sat into the front seat of the hearse to accompany her daughters on their final journey to St Colman’s cemetery in Cloyne.
Several of Zoe’s schoolmates formed a guard of honour and led the cortege down the hill from the church and into the village, before the cortege proceeded to St Colman’s Cemetery in Cloyne for burial.
Ms Butler will attend the funeral Mass for John in St Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh, this morning.