Five drown on St. Louis church trip

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The children were swept away by the Meramec River on Sunday while trying to help another caught in the undertow.

BALLWIN, Mo. -- Four siblings who had never taken swimming lessons drowned along with a fifth youth after apparently going into a river to help their friend, family and authorities say. The sixth youth who had had been caught in an undertow survived.

Witnesses said the five drowned youths -- ages 10 to 17 -- were swept away in the Meramec River late Sunday during a church-sponsored picnic at Castlewood State Park, said Tracy Panus, a spokeswoman for St. Louis County police.

Edris Moore, the mother of the four drowned siblings, said Monday she was placing her faith in God. The mother of the fifth child, Deandra Sherman, declined to comment Monday and retained two lawyers.

The six youths 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 were Moore's children.

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."

Moore, who worked at the Dream Center as a cook, said none of her four children had ever taken swimming lessons.

People had placed balloons and Teddy bears in front of the Dream Center, a square-block complex that once housed a Catholic church, grade school, rectory and convent. Reporters and others were kept off the property of the church, which was founded in 2000 as part of the Joyce Meyers Ministries.

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, and that what precisely had transpired "doesn't concern me." She spoke briefly, saying that the children "went on to be with the Lord."

"I still have my joy," Moore, 36, said as she held Allensworth's hand. "I know where my kids are at. I know I'll see them again."

Before Moore emerged briefly to speak to reporters, men from the church stood on the sidewalks to keep the press from approaching the residence.

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. Moore said that is what she had heard as well.

McNichols 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 youths had already been pulled from the river, and one of them later died. The second youth, a male, survived, 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 8 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. The water at the beach area was calm and shallow Monday morning, though a swift current could be seen farther down the waterway.

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

Loyal said rescuers were concerned that the church sponsors of the event "didn't have accountability." He said the number of missing evolved throughout the night, and there was a point when rescuers didn't know when they could stop their efforts.

"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."

Its property encompassing a square block, the Dream Center in north St. Louis is an interdenominational church -- billed as a "healing place for a hurting world" -- that offers a variety of social services from a teen drop-in center to programs for the homeless.

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

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