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THE NATION

5 St. Louis Drowning Victims Shared Faith and Fate

July 11, 2006|P.J. Huffstutter and Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writers

ST. LOUIS — On a quiet street without many kids, Edris Moore's brood of eight stood out.

They played together in the humid afternoons, roller-skating past the trim lawns and tiny flower gardens on Margaretta Avenue. They prayed together too; every Sunday, a neighbor would see them dressed in their best outside their brick bungalow, ready for church.

This weekend, six of the kids were attending a church barbecue in a leafy state park when -- together, as always -- they decided to splash in the Meramec River with some friends. The current was slow; the water was shallow. But the rocks on the bottom were deceptively slick.

One of the children lost his footing. His siblings waded out to help him -- and one after another, three of them slipped. The current carried them downstream to a deep pool of faster-flowing water.

Within moments, Moore had lost four of her children: a daughter, Dana Johnson, 13; and sons Bryant Barnes, 10; Ryan Mason, 14; and Damon Johnson, 17. One of their friends, 16-year-old Deandra Sherman, drowned too. Moore's children could not swim.

"As they were playing, one by one, like a domino effect, they had their feet taken out from under them," said Sgt. Ralph L. Bledsoe of the Missouri State Water Patrol. "Witnesses said they saw some heads bobbing up and down, but they couldn't get to them.... They disappeared very quickly below the surface."

It took nearly 12 hours, until 6 a.m. Monday, for divers to recover the body of the final victim.

As Moore huddled with her family and pastor in her home, friends of the five young victims wandered over to the St. Louis Dream Center, an urban ministry founded by wealthy televangelist Joyce Meyer. Using hair ribbons and twist-ties and bits of thread, they tucked teddy bears, balloons, even a Tonka truck into the fence around the church.

Fourteen-year-old Vivian Wilson and her friends brought a brown fuzzy bear with well-worn paws. They tied it to the chain-link fence to honor Dana.

Eyes puffy, Vivian recounted the many hours she and Dana had spent hanging out in the middle-school bathroom, talking about boys and music and clothes and "what we would do when we grew up, if we were ever able to get out of here." They had settled on seeing the world, Vivian said. Or at least seeing someplace other than north St. Louis.

"I just don't know what I'm going to do when school starts," Vivian said. "I can't believe she won't be hanging out with me in the bathroom again."

The barbecue in Castlewood State Park was intended to honor volunteers with the Dream Center, which bills itself as "a healing place for a hurting world."

Dana was one of the volunteers. She and her friends spent hours picking up trash in the neighborhood and recruiting other kids for sports or drama at the church's rec center. Her two sisters and five brothers were also heavily involved in the Dream Center. Bryant, in particular, spent hours there practicing for his hoped-for debut as a professional basketball player (and for his backup career: stand-up comedian).

"The family was always very tight," said Tevionne Taylor, 12, who played audience for Bryant's endless jokes. "His mom was really nice, and she was very much in charge. They were always at church. They were always laughing."

Dream Center has a weekly service just for kids, featuring giant puppets, games and prizes. The ministry's portable water slide and bounce house make the rounds of local neighborhoods.

And late Sunday afternoon, the center transported about 50 children, along with chaperons, to the sandy beach by the Meramec River.

The Moore children and several friends apparently kicked off their shoes and waded into the cool water. Close to the beach, the river is just a few feet deep and gentle, with a current estimated at 2 to 3 mph, Bledsoe said.

That was just strong enough to sweep the children about 200 yards downstream, to a fast-moving stretch of water up to 15 feet deep.

Two witnesses unaffiliated with the church saw one child slip, the others rush to help -- and then several heads go under at once. The witnesses pulled two of the children out of the river and administered CPR. One died in the hospital that evening. The other was discharged Monday. Authorities would not say whether he is related to the dead children.

When she arrived at the park shortly after the accident, Tracy Panus, a spokeswoman for the St. Louis County Police, said there was so much confusion that authorities did not realize at first that some children were still in the river.

"We thought it was only two kids gone, but then other kids kept coming up to us saying, 'Wait a minute, I can't find my cousin,' or, 'Wait a minute, I can't find my friend,' " Panus said.

"It's just so tragic, because it's not like the kids were doing anything wrong," Panus said. "It was a church group that had been doing good work for the community, and they were just trying to be out enjoying a warm summer day."

Church officials would say only that they were "deeply grieved" by the tragedy. But some friends and neighbors of the victims questioned why the children were allowed to wade with apparently minimal supervision.

"I love this church, but I need to know what happened," said Nicole Robinson, 31, who removed her two daughters from a church camping trip planned for next week.

"I can't believe they would have taken people who don't know how to swim to where there's water and no lifeguard," said Bill Jones, 62, a neighbor who loved to watch Moore's children run around the neighborhood, bringing energy to a street filled with retirees. "It's so stupid. Such a waste. It breaks my heart."

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