Five youngsters drowned during a church outing after one became caught in a river’s undertow and the others jumped in to help, authorities said Monday. A sixth child was rescued and hospitalized.
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.
Witnesses said the children — ages 9 to 15 — were swept away as they played in the Meramec River Sunday evening, said Tracy Panus, a spokeswoman for St. Louis County police.
“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.”
He said they were still trying to determine exactly what happened.
Authorities received the first call around 6:30 p.m. Sunday and worked through the night to find the victims — four boys and one girl whose ages ranged from 9 to 15.
‘It was horrible’
Metro West Fire Department Chief Vincent Loyal said when rescue workers arrived, two children had already been pulled from the river, and one later died. The second youth, a boy, remained hospitalized, Loyal said.
The body of the last victim was pulled from the river about 6 a.m. Monday.
Parts of the river are shallow enough to walk in, but St. Louis 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, 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.
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.