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1,300 EXPECTED AT FUNERAL FOR MOTHER, 7 CHILDREN

More than 1,000 people from as far away as Norway are expected to attend the funeral service today for the Ontario woman and her seven children who died in a house fire late Monday night.

The fire in the small farming community of West Lincoln, Ont., 30 miles west of Niagara Falls, claimed the lives of Monika Woerlen, 39, and her children, Susanna, 11; Elena, 10; Marcus, 8; Samuel, 7; Paul, 5; Nathan, 3; and Debora, 19 months.

Many of the mourners are members of the Brunstad Christian Church, which the family belonged to, said Werner Janz, a relative who came from Manitoba for the service.

People are flying in from Germany, France and Norway, and driving from places including Syracuse and Ottawa, said Jeffrey Tallman, the Vineland, Ont., funeral director who is handling the arrangements.

At the time of the fire, the father, Marc Woerlen, 41, was in Ottawa, making plans for the family to move there. He drove back to West Lincoln after learning about the fire and has been staying with his parents, Max and Margaret Woerlen, who live about 100 feet from the burned-down house on Concession Four Road, about three miles from the West Lincoln intersection of Highway 20 and Victoria Avenue.

The memorial service, to be held at 11 a.m. in Bethany Community Church in St. Catharines, Ont., will be conducted by Phillip Derkatch of Ottawa, a leader in the Brunstad Christian Church. The international Christian fellowship was founded in Norway in 1900 and now has 35,000 members in 55 countries, according to the Brunstad Web site.

Bethany Community Church seats 1,000 people, but church events coordinator Ann Verbeek said she expects a crowd of least 1,300 for the memorial service.

Burial will be in Lane Cemetery in the West Lincoln hamlet of St. Annes.

Meanwhile, a team of six fire investigators continued Friday to sift through the charred remains of the century-old farmhouse, said Christopher Slosser, spokesman for the Ontario fire marshal's office in Toronto. It will take several more days to find the cause of the fire, he said. Officials said they don't suspect foul play.

More than 40 volunteer firefighters from the Pelham and West Lincoln fire departments battled the blaze for an hour before the two-story wood house collapsed into a smoldering heap of debris.

Fire officials said it was the worst fire fatality toll in Ontario in more than 10 years.

"To put this fire in perspective," Slosser said, "the entire province of Ontario averages 100 fire deaths a year and here we have eight deaths in a single fire."

The fire consumed the house before anyone could escape, said Pelham Fire Chief Scott McLeod. If there was any sense of panic or attempt to flee the burning house, it couldn't be determined from the location of the bodies, he said.

Teachers and pupils from Gainsborough Elementary School, where four of the children attended, will attend the memorial service, said Tara Hall, communications officer for the District School Board of Niagara.

Classmates of the children who perished in the fire are still in a state of shock, Hall said. Some of their fathers were among the volunteer firefighters who battled the blaze and witnessed the grisly aftermath.

"This tragic event has touched everyone very deeply," said Mayor Katie Trombetta of the Township of West Lincoln.

e-mail: bmichelmore@buffnews.com

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