Family members, friends and strangers who helped search for a missing New York City boy came together again Saturday at his funeral, applauding calls to make sure other autistic children are better protected.
Several hundred mourners filled a Manhattan church for a Mass for Avonte Oquendo, who wandered from his Queens school in October, prompting a massive, months-long effort to find him.
The 14-year-old boy's remains were found along the East River in Queens earlier this month and identified through a DNA match on Tuesday. Investigators are still trying to determine how he died.
The ceremony at the Church of St. Joseph in Greenwich Village was led by retired Cardinal Edward Egan, former Roman Catholic archbishop of New York.
Egan referred to Avonte as a "precious being" whose disappearance brought out the best in people from all walks of life as they aided in the search.
"He was a strong, courageous young man who handled the struggle with autism with immense grace and true nobility," Egan said. " . . . This morning, we are grateful to God for Avonte; for his life, for his courage and for the acts of goodness and kindness that his life and his tragic disappearance evoked here among us."
The teenager, who couldn't speak and was prone to wandering, was supposed to be under close supervision at the Riverview School in the Long Island City section of Queens.
Avonte's mother, Vanessa Fontaine of Rego Park, has filed legal papers seeking files from the NYPD's investigation into how the boy was allowed to walk away.
Speaking at the service, her lawyer, David Perecman, said Avonte's funeral must not be the final chapter of this life.
"This loss . . . cannot be in vain," he said. "We must find out how to fix our schools. We must find out how to fix the system of safety that failed this boy."
Mourners burst into applause at the Manhattan lawyer's call to investigate the city's school system.
"This can never happen again," Perecman said to more applause.
After the service, he said the next legal step is to have the court appoint Fontaine as the administrator of the boy's estate so she can sue the city.
A large photograph of a smiling Avonte greeted people as they entered the church. Nearby was a large heart and cross festooned with dozens of flowers.
Mourners laid white roses on the coffin before it was driven away in a hearse. The family intends to cremate the remains.
"You couldn't stop looking," said Theresa Robinson of Long Island City, a retired customer service worker who joined the search for Avonte. "It's so sad. . . . You think about your own child," she said.