CAMPBELLTON, N.B. - With a maturity far beyond his six years, Ethan Levesque summoned the strength to console a grief-stricken city Wednesday evening coping with the deaths of his two friends who police say were asphyxiated by an African rock python while they slept.
"God needs all of you and you are special," Levesque told the hundreds of people who gathered at a candlelight vigil in honour of four-year-old Noah Barthe and his six-year-old brother Connor.
"Your friends are up in the sky and they are watching you."
The vigil in Campbellton, N.B., opened with a moment of silence to pay respects to the boys, whose deaths have triggered an outpouring of global sympathy. Later, as the sun set over the Restigouche River, balloons were let go into the sky and tea light candles were set adrift into a fountain at the centre of the gathering.
"I felt it was time to bring the community together and pay our mutual respects and honour the lives that are not just gone, but that were lived by two beautiful boys," said Ethan's mother Cindy Levesque, who organized the event.
She said she will keep close to her heart memories of her own children playing with Noah and Connor.
"When my boys were with them, it was just pure joy and happiness," said Levesque. "Tonight is to celebrate that joy and happiness."
Emile Aujer, who lives in the neighbourhood where the boys died, said he was overwhelmed with sorrow when he heard of their deaths.
"I cried like a baby," said Aujer, 80. "I came here for the kids and the family."
The vigil was held at the Salmon Plaza monument, about a block away from the apartment where the boys were found dead Monday morning. The monument features an 8.5-metre replica of an Atlantic salmon in a fountain along the waterfront of the city of 7,400 that borders Quebec.
Earlier in the day, the city's deputy mayor said the vigil was intended to provide some measure of catharsis for his community.
"I think when you look at the ages of these kids, four and six, that's what has really saddened the population not just in Campbellton, but New Brunswick, Canada, and elsewhere," said Ian Comeau.
"We have been receiving a lot of messages from around the world about how sad the people are."
Police said the boys were found Monday at around 6:30 a.m. in a family friend's apartment after an African rock python weighing 45 kilograms escaped its glass tank by slithering through a ventilation system above and then falling through a ceiling into the living room where they slept. The snake has been euthanized and a necropsy shows it was in overall good health, though investigators are waiting for a final report, the RCMP said.
Preliminary results of the autopsies on the boys show that they died of asphyxiation, Sgt. Alain Tremblay said.
"While we now have some preliminary information, investigators still have to wait for other test results to come back and for the final report," Sgt. Alain Tremblay said in a statement Wednesday.
"We recognize that this has touched the hearts of people across the world and that people want to know how this could have happened. Our investigators are looking at all aspects of this tragic incident, and that will take some time."
Premier David Alward issued a statement offering his sympathies.
"It is with a heavy heart and tremendous sadness that I offer, on behalf of the provincial government and of all New Brunswickers, our deepest condolences to the family of Noah and Connor Barthe and to the community of Campbellton following the unimaginable tragedy," Alward said in a statement.
"As a father, the tragic loss of these two young lives full of so much promise and potential is a lasting reminder that ensuring our children's safety is paramount."
In what serves as a makeshift memorial, teddy bears have been placed at the base of a utility pole across the street from the apartment where the boys died. The apartment has been cordoned off with yellow police tape and on Wednesday, two provincial conservation officers were seen entering and leaving Reptile Ocean, an exotic pet store located downstairs from the apartment.
The apartment and store are owned by Jean-Claude Savoie, a family friend of the boys who took them shopping and to a farm before hosting a sleepover along with his son. Savoie could not be reached for comment.
Bry Loyst, founder and curator of the Indian River Reptile Zoo in Ontario, said Wednesday he and a crew were driving a truck to Campbellton after the New Brunswick government asked for his help to remove animals from the pet shop and take them to accredited zoos elsewhere in the country.
"Definitely the dangerous animals are all leaving the province," Loyst said.
New Brunswick's Natural Resources Department later said it obtained a search warrant to search Reptile Ocean and if any illegal exotic animals are found, they would be seized and relocated to accredited zoos.
Department spokeswoman Anne Bull said it was not aware that the African rock python was being kept in the apartment before the deaths of the boys, adding that it is illegal to keep that snake species without a special permit that is reserved for accredited zoos and not private pet owners.
"In fact, we had no knowledge of the existence of this African rock python prior to this week's tragedy," Bull said in an email.
A funeral service for the boys is scheduled Saturday at 4 p.m. at St. Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic Church.