NEW BRITAIN, Conn. – More than 2,000 friends and strangers crowded a memorial service Saturday for a slain Cheshire mother and her two daughters, many wiping away tears as the lone survivor of the attacks eulogized his family.
Dr. William Petit Jr. still bore the bruises, gashes and other injuries inflicted by the intruders who killed his 48-year-old wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and daughters, 17-year-old Hayley and 11-year-old Michaela during a home invasion and arson fire early Monday.
“I guess if there’s anything to be gained from the senseless deaths of my beautiful family, it’s for us all to go forward with the inclination to live with a faith that embodies action. Help a neighbor, fight for a cause, love your family,” Petit told the crowd.
“I’m really expecting all of you to go out and do some of these things with your family, in your own little way, to spread the work of these three wonderful women. Thank you,” he said before breaking down.
Mourners filled Central Connecticut State University’s 1,800-seat Welte Hall and overflow seating nearby. They included classmates of the girls, the family’s fellow churchgoers, co-workers, members of the medical community and countless strangers.
Those who spoke focused on the Petit women’s vibrant spirits and their love for each other, their community and their strong religious faith.
“As much as we weep, as much as we mourn their loss, as much as we miss them, God weeps with us,” said Stephen Volpe, their pastor at Cheshire United Methodist Church.
“It’s nearly impossible for me to believe that I will never see them in our church again because it just should not be, it should not be,” he said. “It just does not make sense and is too much to bear.”
Johanna Chapman, Dr. Petit’s sister, said the large, close-knit family is devastated by the killings, which have attracted national attention.
“Our hearts are broken. Our lives will never be the same,” she said.
Hawke-Petit, she said, was more like a sister than a sister-in-law, and never let her multiple sclerosis define her as a person.
Chapman said Hayley was inquisitive as a toddler, asking about the universe’s formation. She was the cousin all of the younger cousins looked up to.
“The short time Hayley was here, she made an amazing difference,” said Chapman, choking back tears. “Can you imagine what she could have done?”
Michaela, Chapman said, loved to cook and watch the Food Network on television. She prepared the family’s dinner on Sunday – a salad with homemade balsamic vinaigrette, pasta and sauce made from fresh local tomatoes, basil and garlic.
“We’ll never know what direction life could have taken her,” Chapman said. “Losing her at age 11 is possibly the greatest loss of all because she never got the chance to show us how great she could have been.”
Two parolees are charged with capital felony, sexual assault, arson, assault and numerous other crimes in the homicides and could face the death penalty if convicted.
Cheshire police apprehended them early Monday as they tried to flee the house, where they allegedly held the family hostage for hours before killing the women and attempting to kill Dr. Petit.
The suspects, 26-year-old Joshua Komisarjevsky of Cheshire and 44-year-old Steven Hayes of Winsted, both have lengthy criminal records and had been released earlier this year from prison.
One of the suspects forced Hawke-Petit to make a withdrawal at a local bank, an incident that triggered suspicion among bank employees. Police were notified and rushed to the Petit home, where they encountered the fleeing suspects and found the family’s home ablaze.
Dr. Petit had been badly beaten and was bound in the basement, but managed to escape the fire. The bodies of his family were found inside.
Hawke-Petit was strangled and her daughters died of smoke inhalation as the house burned around them, according to autopsy results and police.
The family is well-known in the state. Dr. Petit, 50, is the medical director of the Joslin Diabetes Center Affiliate at The Hospital of Central Connecticut in New Britain and president of the Hartford County Medical Association.
His wife of 22 years was a health center co-director at Cheshire Academy, and daughter Michaela – nicknamed K.K. – attended Chase Collegiate School in Waterbury.
Hayley Petit, who recently graduated from Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, hoped to become a doctor and had received an early acceptance to Dartmouth, her father’s alma mater.
“I want to share who Hayley was, I really do. Part of me thinks people should know that she was so wonderful,” said Sarah Glaser, 18, a childhood friend. “It’s very hard for me to walk in there and see the pictures and the memorial to them. It’s very hard. But I feel I should be here for Hayley.”
Megan Alexander, 17, said Hawke-Petit was a second mother to many of the students at Cheshire Academy, many of whom are boarders and come from other countries.
“She was like that for me and all of Hayley’s friends and all of her students and patients. She was always there for you,” Alexander said.
Dr. Petit, who spoke lovingly about his family for nearly 20 minutes Saturday and even injected humor with funny family stories, read from Hayley’s college essay to Dartmouth.
In the essay, titled “My Dad,” she told about trailing her father’s long, white doctor’s coat tails through the hospital hallways on Saturdays, and how he made patients feel safe.
Dr. Petit said he understood that feeling this week while he was being treated at St. Mary’s Hospital in Waterbury.
“Everybody there was beautiful and angels to me,” he said. “I knew I had to leave to get out for the services, but it did feel safe. And part of me wanted to hide there and not face things.”