Families reflect on childrens' drownings; service planned for tonight
St. Louis, MO – There will be a service tonight (Tuesday) for the five children who drowned in the Meramec River on Sunday.
It will be at the St. Louis Dream Center, the church in north City that had taken the kids and dozens other to a picnic in Castlewood State Park. Four of the five were siblings and had never taken swimming lessons. A sixth youth who had had been caught in an undertow survived.
The service begins at 7:00 p.m. at 4324 Margaretta.
Meanwhile, the mother whose four siblings drowned Sunday says she's putting her trust in God, while the family of a fifth victim is considering legal options.
Four of Edris Moore's eight children drowned in the Meramec River while at a church picnic. She said yesterday that whatever exactly happened "doesn't concern her" - she just knows she'll see her children again one day.
The children never took swimming lessons and had gone in to help a friend in the water; that friend ended up the only survivor of the ordeal.
Siblings Ryan Mason, Damon Johnson, Bryant Barnes, and Dana Johnson all died. So did Deandra Sherman, whose parents say they want answers and who met with a lawyer Monday, but who had no further comment.
The youngsters were with a group from the St. Louis Dream Center, a church on the city's north side founded by the Joyce Meyer Ministries.
"I still have my joy," Moore, 36, said as she held the Rev. Jeff Allensworth's hand Monday. "I know where my kids are at. I know I'll see them again."
Both families' homes, in a primarily black, working-class neighborhood, received dozens of family members, friends and reporters throughout the day Monday as authorities and church officials tried to piece together what had gone so tragically wrong at Castlewood State Park, near Ballwin.
Witnesses said the five drowned youths - ages 10 to 17 - were swept away in the Meramec River. Ryan Mason was 14; Damon Johnson, 17; Bryan Barnes, 10; Deandra Sherman, 16; Dana Johnson was 13.
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," Allensworth said. "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 works at the Dream Center as a cook, said none of the 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 four of 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.
Before Moore emerged briefly to speak to reporters, church members with arms folded across their chests kept vigil on the sidewalks to prevent 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 "my 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 already had 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," Tracy Panus, a spokeswoman for the St. Louis County Police, 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."
The Dream Center in north St. Louis bills itself as a "healing place for a hurting world," offering a variety of social services from a teen drop-in center to programs for the homeless.