Three balloons hovered next to a white casket holding the body of a young mother Thursday _ one for each of her children who died in her minivan when she drove it into the frigid Hudson River.
The packed, music-filled funeral for LaShanda Armstrong, 25, came one day after her youngest would have turned 1. In attendance was the son who didn't die: her oldest, 10-year-old La'Shaun, who escaped the sinking van.
La'Shaun "was very strong" at the funeral, a family friend said.
"He cried some, just a little," said Beverly Cox of Westbury, who sang several gospel hymns at the service. "But that's only natural."
Armstrong loaded her four children into the van April 12 after an argument with the father of her three youngest and drove down a boat ramp in Newburgh.
Among the mourners at Armstrong's funeral _ the children will be buried separately _ was Maeve Ryan, who had found a shivering La'Shaun near the river and took him to firefighters.
On her way into the church, Ryan said she attended to tell La'Shaun, "'I will always be here for you, and I apologize for not doing more than I could.'"
Ryan said she has nightmares and flashbacks and feels "regretful" that she could not rescue the rest of the family. She passed by the boat ramp on Wednesday, she said, "and it was hard for me. I started crying."
Ryan would not take questions after the funeral, and it was unclear whether she got the chance to talk to the boy.
During the service, preachers told the mourners not to judge Armstrong's actions.
"All those who say she shouldn't have done this: You weren't there," said the Rev. Weldon McWilliams, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Spring Valley.
"We all know that life is full of questions," said the Rev. Naomi Lauture. "LaShanda loved God, and God loved LaShanda, and nobody can stop that."
The congregants applauded.
The small church, built in 1964 next to railroad tracks, held about 300 mourners in pews and folding chairs and another 100 who stood in the side aisles and along the back wall. A display of photographs, labeled "Family Memories," stood on an easel next to the casket.
A joint funeral had been planned for the mother and children, but the dead children's father, Jean Pierre, said Wednesday that he would hold a separate service for the children on Monday. La'Shaun has a different father.
Armstrong's relatives were angry with the decision for separate services and a burial in separate cemeteries.
"She gave birth to them. She was their mother," said Armstrong's cousin Channise White. "At the end of the day, no matter what, they are her children. They should be buried with her."
Pierre did not attend the funeral.