'I couldn't hide my tears': Families mourn at Belle Isle tribute to virus victims

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Frances Bazel spent her life opening her heart and home to others. But she was forced to take her last breaths alone.

The widely loved "community mother" who introduced her family to church, service groups and, over the years, took in 10 foster children, died April 4 from COVID-19, said her granddaughter, Ericka Murria.

Bazel, 82, was staying in a Detroit nursing home where she'd been undergoing rehabilitation. It was a place her family thought she'd be safe from the deadly virus. Instead, it's where she fell ill.

"We got a call in the middle of the night that she couldn't breathe," recalled Murria, 37, of Detroit. "It continued to spiral downward. COVID attacked her major organs, pneumonia came about, and she went into a coma."

Volunteer Margaret Gore of St. Clair Shores straightens balloons attached to the portrait of COVID-19 victim Alyssa Calcaterra of Madison Heights along The Strand.

Safety precautions to prevent spread of the virus in medical facilities kept a heartbroken Murria from being at her grandmother's bedside. 

"I could not fight for her when she could not fight for herself," she added in tears. 

Murria and her family joined loved ones of Detroit's more than 1,500 COVID-19 victims Monday for a day-long memorial at Belle Isle to honor the lives lost in the city ravaged by the virus.

Ericka Murria, 37, of Detroit was among the relatives to visit Belle Isle Monday for a citywide memorial honoring COVID-19 victims. Her grandmother Frances Bazel died on April 4.

More than 3,000 vehicles were expected to enter the island Park off Jefferson to view a public display of 907 billboard-sized posters of Detroiters and first responders who died between March and Aug. 18.

Murria drove along the dedicated route tuned into a blues music station on the radio. As she approached her grandmother's poster, Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" began to play. 

"It's almost like we saw her," she said. "I know I couldn't hide my tears after that."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist joined Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan to lead off the memorial Monday morning with remarks near the bridge entrance at Jefferson and East Grand Boulevard. The 15 processions are expected to run through 4 p.m.

"This city was hit harder than most. We took it seriously together, as partners,” Whitmer said Monday.

The photographs line multiple roadways on Belle Isle. Some pictures were adorned with balloons or bouquets of flowers. A vase with a collection of multicolored roses was placed next to a smiling image of 5-year-old Skylar Herbert. Skylar on April 19 became the first child in Michigan to die of complications from the respiratory virus. 

The child first complained of a headache and later developed a rare form of meningitis and brain swelling. She died after spending two weeks on a ventilator. 

Relatives of 47-year-old Laneeka "Nikki" Barksdale said they found some comfort Monday in the absence of a proper burial or celebration of life for the beloved mother of four.

"It makes you feel like you're not alone because you see all of these pictures out here," said Barksdale's younger sister, Tionna Barksdale-Matthews, 40.

But "to see that it hit African Americans so hard, to see so many of their faces out there, it's disturbing," she said. 

Barksdale, a mother of four, loved to dance and was known as "Detroit's ballroom queen," her family said. 

"People loved to be around her. She smiled all the time, always laughing," said Nikki's mother, Stephanie Barksdale. 

In March, Barksdale, who suffered from asthma, unexpectedly grew weak and drove herself to Harper Hospital. After three days, she was placed on a ventilator. Within a week, she died.

For her son, Tyree Barksdale, 18, there's not a moment in the day that he's not thinking of her. 

"There's days that I can't sleep. For my little sister, I know it's going to be hard for her growing up," said Barksdale, motioning to Nikki's youngest, Cassidy Mettles, 8, who stood next to him clutching a single pink rose.

Detroit has been hard-hit by the virus, recording 13,687 confirmed coronavirus cases and 1,512 deaths as of Monday, according to the Detroit Health Department. 

Duggan said Monday that Detroit quickly went from no cases in early March to 40 to 50 deaths per day with overwhelmed hospitals and about 600 police officers — nearly a quarter of the city's police force — under quarantine.

"I remember saying from the beginning 'Detroit is going to fight back,'" he said.

The mayor said a broad tribute to reflect on lives lost in the city was something that couldn't wait.

"It's very powerful even when you are by yourself," he said. "Today, we get a chance to mourn together."

When Cher Coner's mother died during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, all she could do to mourn was sit at home and cry.

The family's 73-year-old matriarch, Joyce Ann Coner, died in Sacramento, Calif., of sepsis. She'd put off surgery due to the deadly virus outbreak and it cost her her life, her daughter said.

Cher Coner speaks about her mother Monday, Aug. 31, 2020, at the start of a memorial on Belle Isle.

Coner, 50, said she urged Duggan to organize the citywide remembrance to honor Detroit lives lost to COVID-19 and other families, like hers, unable to grieve their losses with a proper memorial and burial. The city listened, she said. 

"Right now, this is the moment that we get that we didn't have," Coner told reporters at the entrance to the Belle Isle bridge.

"I just remember that day crying. Here's this moment in time that you can never get back," said Coner, who lost her mother on April 8. "This is very emotional for me. You feel so helpless."

Swanson Funeral Home hearses are seen on the MacArthur Bridge near Belle Isle on Monday.

The Monday morning processions, led by hearses provided and driven by area funeral homes, were strictly for families who have preregistered to participate, the city said. No stops were permitted during the processions.

The park is closed for the day to cars, bikes and pedestrian traffic. The memorial site will be open to the public on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Detroit's program to honor COVID-19 victims comes after Michigan on Friday surpassed 100,000 cases of the disease. The first confirmed cases in the state were reported in Oakland and Wayne counties on March 10. 

The state recorded another 451 cases on Monday and seven more deaths. Overall, 102,468 Michiganians have been diagnosed with the virus and 6,480 have died. 

Detroit Mayor Duggan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist talk before funeral processions take the Memorial Drive Around Belle Isle to honor 1,500 victims of COVID-19

Whitmer said Monday that some are “putting their heads in the sand” in recognizing the seriousness of the virus, but “we won’t back down.”

“COVID-19 is still a very real threat to communities across Michigan,” she said.

The statewide fatality rate has dropped from 9.5% in June to 6.3% as of Monday. But the virus continues to move across Michigan, with hundreds of new cases confirmed daily.

Detroit was considered an early epicenter of the disease in Michigan, with cases and deaths surging early on. In recent months, there's been a marked decline. 

Collage unveiled of 900 Detroiters.

Last week, officials unveiled a collage of 900 portraits submitted by families created by artist Eric Millikin; the collage will be displayed during the day-long drive. 

Ford Motor Co. Fund director Pamela Alexande, TCF Financial Chairman Gary Torgow and United Way for Southeastern Michigan CEO Darienne Hudson also spoke at Monday's memorial. The Ford Motor fund is sponsoring the drive and TCF Bank and United Way are hosting a memorial repast for families.

James Harper, 80, is among the 1,500 Detroiters who died of COVID-19 between March and Aug. 18. He was among those remembered Monday during a citywide memorial at Belle Isle.

James Harper, a Ford Motor Co. retiree turned full-time preacher, was known for his friendly nature and kindness.

On Monday, two of his daughters shared memories of their 80-year-old father who died at Sinai-Grace Hospital on March 24.

Harper had passed out at his home and was rushed to the medical center. It took five days before his family learned he was positive for the virus.

He declined quickly, was placed on a ventilator and his body began to shut down.

"We got a chance to talk to him. All of us were on the phone. We got a chance to tell him that we loved him and he loved us," said Krystal Harper, 45, of her father. "That was the last time we could talk to him."

Harper's sister, Kimberly Weaver, 48, said the memorial display opened up their eyes to the wide-ranging devastation. 

"You see people you know. You see people that you've seen in Detroit. You walk past and they look familiar," Weaver said. "It's surreal that a lot of people that passed away didn't have to."

After her father died, Weaver drove to her mother's house, but due to the dangers of the virus had to talk to her by phone. 

"We couldn't hug," she said. "We couldn't comfort each other."