Five children die while playing in river in Missouri

BALLWIN, Mo. (AP) – Five children – four of them siblings – drowned during a church outing when they were caught in a river’s current, apparently while trying to help a sixth child who was rescued, authorities and the victims’ relatives said Monday.

The six were among about 50 youths 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.

Witnesses said the children – ages 10 to 17 – were swept away as they played in the Meramec River on Sunday evening, said Tracy Panus, a St. Louis County police spokeswoman.

“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.”

Authorities worked through the night to find the victims after receiving a call around 6:30 p.m. Sunday.

Metro West Fire Department Chief Vincent Loyal said when rescue workers arrived, two children had already been pulled from the river, and one of the two later died. The second youth, a boy, remained hospitalized, Loyal said.

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 Sherman had the same mother, Edris Moore, and all are from St. Louis.

Outside the children’s north St. Louis home, about a mile from the church, their mother told reporters she was not at the church outing, which six of her eight children attended.

She the children “went on to be with the Lord.”

“I still have my joy,” Moore, 36, said as she held Allensworth’s hand.

The siblings’ grandfather, Leon McNichols, said he was told Damon Johnson jumped into the water and saved the boy who survived, then drowned along with the others who were trying to help. Moore said she had heard the same thing.

“They’re the kind of children in this day and age you want to hear about,” McNichols said.

Parts of the river are shallow enough to walk in, but county Police Lt. Gary Barra said the bodies were found in water eight to 12 feet deep.

Rescue workers were hampered by inconsistent reports about how many children were attending the event and how many were missing, said Panus, the police spokeswoman.

“It was just depressing,” she 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.

According to its Web site, the Dream Center in north St. Louis is an interdenominational church that offers a variety of social services from a teen drop-in center to programs for the homeless.

Associated Press Writers Jim Suhr in St. Louis and Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City contributed to this report.

On the Net:

Dream Center:

AP-ES-07-10-06 1712EDT

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