BALLWIN, Mo. | – BALLWIN, Mo. | Five youngsters — four of them siblings — drowned in a river during a church outing after one became caught in the undertow and the others jumped in to help, authorities said Monday.
A sixth child pulled from the water was hospitalized.
Witnesses said the children — ages 10 to 17 — were swept away in the Meramec River Sunday evening at Castlewood State Park, said Tracy Panus, a spokeswoman for St. Louis County police.
The six were part of a group of about 50 youngsters with the St. Louis Dream Center, an interdenominational church that was celebrating a volunteer appreciation day with a barbecue and swimming in Castlewood State Park southwest of St. Louis.
The victims were four boys, Ryan Mason, 14; Damon Johnson, 17; Bryant Barnes, 10; Deandra Sherman, 16; and a 13-year-old girl, Dana Johnson, said Terry Ledbetter, chief investigator for the St. Louis County Medical Examiner’s office. All the children except Deandra had the same mother, Edris Mason, and all were from St. Louis. The identity of the surviving child was not released.
“Let me say this is one of the most horrendous things a church family, any family, would have to go through,” said church pastor Jeff Allensworth. “I just ask that as we sort through this and minister to the families, you all pray for us. We really need the support and prayers of the church and community.”
Asked if he knew how the drownings had happened, Allensworth told reporters outside the church, “At this point we are investigating the details. I really don’t have a good answer for that right now.”
People had placed balloons and teddy bears in front of the church. Reporters and others were being kept off the property of the church, which was founded in 2000 as part of the Joyce Meyer Ministries. Members of the ministries were also keeping visitors and the media away from the home of the mother of four of the victims.
Outside the children’s north St. Louis home, about a mile from the church, Leon McNichols, the grandfather of the four siblings, said he was told Damon Johnson jumped into the water and saved the child who survived, but that he drowned along with the others who were trying to help. He called Damon “his hero” and said all the children were “good kids.”
“They’re the kind of children in this day and age you want to hear about,” McNichols said. “They’re children of faith — children with a strong faith and intelligence.”
Neighbor Clister Ingrum, who has lived in the tidy, tree-lined neighborhood of brick bungalows for 50 years, said he was especially sorry for the parents. “The parents are the ones who are suffering,” Ingrum said.
Authorities received the first call around 6:30 p.m. Sunday and worked throughout the night to find the victims. Metro West Fire Department Chief Vincent Loyal said when rescue workers arrived on the scene, two persons had already been pulled from the river, and one of them later died. The second youth, a boy, remained hospitalized, Loyal said. Other victims were recovered throughout the night, Loyal said, with the last pulled from the river about 6 a.m. Monday.
St. Louis County Police Lt. Gary Barra said the victims were pulled from water eight to 12 feet deep, although some parts of the river are shallow enough to walk through. The bodies were discovered about 200 yards downstream from a sandy beach where the group presumably entered the water, Loyal said. Athletic shoes, water bottles and a breathing mask with instructions were seen on the beach.
Rescue workers were hampered by inconsistent reports about how many children were attending the event and how many were missing, Panus said.
“It was just depressing,” Panus said. “It was horrible. You have a church group out there for a good reason, a good cause. No one is out there drinking or getting stoned, and a tragedy can happen just like that. It’s kids and it’s tragic.”
Parents said the children could swim, Panus said.
Associated Press writers Jim Suhr in St. Louis and Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City contributed to this report.
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