ST. LOUIS (AP) — Investigators said Tuesday they expect no charges to be filed in the river drownings of five children on a weekend church outing in eastern Missouri, calling it an accident.
But the family of one of the children who died has retained attorneys and may sue, questioning whether any of the youths who drowned were properly supervised.
Their attorney said it’s important for authorities to investigate what happened Sunday evening during a church-sponsored picnic at Castlewood State Park southwest of St. Louis and whether adults were present when the five drowned youths — ages 10 to 17 — entered the Meramec River.
Witnesses said they were swept away in the river.
“They want to know what happened to their child and why,” said St. Louis attorney William Holland, retained by the family of one of the drowning victims, 16-year-old Deandre Sherman, of St. Louis.
Referring to the St. Louis Dream Center, the church that sponsored the event, Holland said, “I think their heart was in the right place but they obviously failed to adequately supervise the children.”
The Dream Center, run by internationally known television evangelist Joyce Meyer and her husband, Dave Meyer, had no information to release Tuesday as it ministered to the affected families and church community, spokeswoman Kristy Lawley said.
The church planned to devote much of a regular weekly service Tuesday evening to prayers for the victims’ families. Lawley would not say whether Joyce Meyer, who runs the ministries’ U.S. headquarters out of the St. Louis suburb of Fenton, planned to attend.
The ministries did not respond to e-mailed questions from The Associated Press about the number of adult chaperones and the absence of a record of children who attended Sunday’s picnic.
Authorities said rescue workers were hampered by inconsistent reports about how many children were attending the event and how many were missing.
Four siblings, who had never taken swimming lessons, drowned along with Sherman after apparently going into the river to help a church friend who was caught in an undertow, authorities said. The sixth youth, rescued by a Florissant woman before the official rescue crews arrived on the scene, survived. The boy was released from a St. Louis-area hospital Monday, his identity, age, and relationship to the others closely guarded by authorities.
The six youths were part of a group of about 50 youngsters with the Dream Center, an interdenominational church that was celebrating a volunteer appreciation day with a picnic at the state park.
The victims were four boys, Ryan Mason, 14; Damon Johnson, 17; Bryant Barnes, 10; Deandre Sherman, 16; and a 13-year-old girl, Dana Johnson. All the children except Deandre were siblings.
Tracy Panus, spokeswoman for the St. Louis County Police Department, called the incident an “accidental drowning” and said the investigation hasn’t turned up anything criminal. She said the children had adult supervision and noted that state law doesn’t require certain adult chaperone-to-child ratios.
St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch will review the reports, spokesman Don Schneider said.
Sgt. Ralph Bledsoe of the Missouri State Water Patrol said his agency got the call at 6:29 p.m. Sunday and immediately dispatched rescuers to the park, as did the nearby Metro West Fire Department. He said the scene was one of total confusion with “real questions about how many kids were in the water.”
“We didn’t know how many children we were looking for,” Bledsoe said. “We had decided we were not going to cease our activity until told all were accounted for.”
When rescuers arrived, a 31-year-old Florissant woman with lifeguard training already had pulled two male youths out of the river, one of whom succumbed overnight while the other survived. Rescuers pulled four bodies out from 9 p.m. Sunday to 6 a.m. Monday.
The Florissant woman, who asked the Water Patrol not to release her name, told rescuers she saw a group of 12 youths wading and swimming in the river until one of them who had slipped off in a current shouted for help. The other youths tried to retrieve him and were themselves carried away by the current.
Alerted by the child’s screams, the Florissant woman ran from the beach to the river and pulled two boys closest to the shore to safety. She and her husband applied cardio pulmonary resuscitation to both boys for 10 minutes until paramedics arrived, Bledsoe said. She saw Dana, the only female child, go under. She lost sight of the others, who had been swallowed by the water, he said.
Because of the drownings, the state park system is considering an educational campaign to explain the risks associated with Missouri’s rivers, spokeswoman Sue Holst said.
Over the last decade, from 1996 to 2005, the Missouri Water Patrol recorded 24 drownings on the Meramec River.
Bledsoe said no one should enter a river without a life jacket, even if only to wade. The first instinct is to swim against a current, but he said “that’s the worst thing you can do.” It’s advised to swim or float with the current, which eventually will take a person to shore.
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