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Community mourns victims of Bethel apartment fire

The three coffins in the Bethel Regional High School gym on Aug. 24, 2022
Nina Kravinsky
The three coffins in the Bethel Regional High School gym on Aug. 24, 2022.

Hundreds of family, friends, and community members gathered to mourn the three family members who died in an apartment building fire two weeks ago in Bethel. Brianna Engebreth, age 13, and Melissa Engebreth, age 15, were Sophie Engebreth’s, age 68, granddaughters whom she also adopted.

The Russian Orthodox funeral service was held in the Bethel Regional High School gym. The three lavender-and-white painted wooden coffins sat below the basketball net.

Coffin of 15-year-old Melissa Engebreth
Nina Kravinsky
Coffin of 15-year-old Melissa Engebreth on Aug. 24, 2022.

Many of the women in the family wore kuspuks that matched the purple shade of the coffin lids; each lid was topped with a candle and Russian Orthodox cross. The coffins were surrounded by portraits of the deceased and colorful plastic flowers.

Dressed in black robes and blue vestments, Fr. Michael Trefon swung a cistern over the scuffed hardwood floor.

After the service, a line of mourners waited to approach the coffins to say a last goodbye to Sophie, Melissa, and Brianna as the priest blew out each of the three candles. Pallbearers carried the coffins one by one through the door of the gym and into the back of a truck trailer.

Pallbearers carry one of the coffins out of the BRHS gym
Nina Kravinsky
Pallbearers carry one of the coffins out of the BRHS gym on Aug. 24, 2022.

Rosemarie McIntyre planned much of the funeral. She’s Sophie’s oldest daughter.

“Melissa, Brianna, and Sophie were, to put it shortly, intelligent, strong, independent women,” McIntyre said.

She said that the day that Sophie adopted Brianna and Melissa was one of the happiest days of her mom’s life. From then on, they went everywhere together," McIntyre said.

It’s rare for funerals to be held at Bethel Regional High School, but McIntyre said that it was the only place big enough.

“I had to think about, for three people, where we can have all the bodies, all the family, all the friends, everybody who was touched by their lives in one gathering space,” McIntyre said.

Coffin of 13-year-old Brianna Engebreth
Nina Kravinsky
Coffin of 13-year-old Brianna Engebreth on Aug. 24, 2022.

Sophie had nine children by birth and adopted four, including Brianna and Melissa. McIntyre said that as kids, her mom would wake her and her sisters up early to braid their hair. Sophie’s homemade beaded hair pins matched the girls’ outfits.

Now the large family is spread out geographically. McIntyre said that even through the grief there was joy in coming together, even in mourning.

“It wasn’t until I came to Bethel and I got to physically hug the family, the friends, the relatives,” McIntyre said. “And see my nieces, and see my cousins, and see them cry and mourn and how my mom touched them, where it just hit me that these people felt the same love that I had for my mom.”

The after-school timing of the funeral meant students could easily come to the service. Thirteen-year-old Brianna and 15-year-old Melissa died the same week school started.

Friends of Melissa remember her as kind to everyone, even when she didn’t have to be. Classmate Maya Ayagalria and Melissa were both 10th graders who participated in JROTC.

“Melissa kept telling me she couldn’t wait for this year for JROTC because we were gonna finally travel,” Ayagalria said.

Melissa also loved to dance at Cama-i. Another classmate and friend, Bethany Chase, remembered that she would brave the stage even when she was nervous.

“Melissa was very caring, always there for everyone,” Chase said.

Brianna’s friends said that she played basketball and ran cross country and said that she wanted 10 kids one day.

“She was shy, but then if you got to know her she’d be funny and she’d talk a lot,” said classmate Kelsey Green.

Sophie had also attended Bethel Regional High School, where she was classmates with Aldine B. Anaruk. They remained friends over the decades.

“Sophie was a very loving mother. I’ve known her ever since we were kids," Anaruk said. "Always a smile, always a kiss, always a hug, even to me. Always.”

Another friend remembered Sophie’s kindness. When Sophie worked at the AC coffee shop, she once gave Doreen Black a free cup of coffee when Black didn’t have money on her.

In their obituaries, the family remembered that Sophie, Melissa, and Brianna loved spending time together at home. Sophie had just taught the girls how to play cards; the three of them liked to play speed and solitaire. The girls loved to cook dinner for Sophie.

Sophie had planned to take Brianna and Melissa to the Alaska State Fair soon, one of their favorite things to do in the fall.

The GoFundMe page for the Engebreth family’s funeral expenses is still active.

Nina is a temporary news reporter at KYUK. She comes to Bethel from NPR, where she's a producer at Morning Edition.
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