- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2006

BALLWIN, Mo. (AP) — 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 yesterday. 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 at Castlewood State Park southwest of St. Louis.

Witnesses said the five boys and one girl, ages 9 to 15, were swept away after they stopped to play Sunday evening in the Meramec River, 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 Jeff Allensworth, a church pastor. “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 about 6:30 p.m. Sunday and worked through the night to find victims.

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

The body of the last victim was pulled from the river about 6 a.m. yesterday.

St. Louis County Police Lt. Gary Barra said the bodies were found in water 8 to 12 feet deep.

The bodies were about 200 yards downstream from a sandy beach where the group likely entered the shallow wading water, Chief Loyal said. Athletic shoes, water bottles and a breathing mask with instructions were on the beach. The water at the beach area was calm yesterday morning, though a swift current ran farther down the waterway.

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

“It was just depressing,” Mrs. 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, Mrs. Panus said.

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