EAST ST. LOUIS — In the wake of the deaths of five young children in an apartment fire on Friday, Mayor Robert Eastern III summed up the grief felt across the city.
"It is very, very devastating," he said.
Eastern, speaking from the scene at 560 N. 29th St., praised the first responders who tried to save the lives of the three girls and two boys.
Deontae Davis Jr., 9; twins Neveah Dunigan and Heaven Dunigan, 8; Jabari Johnson, 4; and Loy-el Dunigan, 2, died from injuries suffered in the fire, according to a confirmation by St. Clair County Coroner Calvin Dye Sr.
They died on their mother Sabrina Dunigan's birthday, according to her cousin, Anthony Buchannan.
"It is tough whenever we experience any loss of life that is not the result of natural causes, but it's worse when it is children times five and they lose their lives at such young ages like what happened," Eastern said. "My heart goes out to the family at this devastating and tragic time."
An emotional George McClellan, the East St. Louis Fire Department's assistant chief who is also a nurse, said the scene was a tough one for him. He said he has seen a lot of bodies, but when it is children, the hurt is a lot worse.
"My heart goes out to the first responders, too," the mayor said. "Assistant Fire Chief George McClellan and his crew did an outstanding job. Police Chief Kendall Perry and his officers were on scene doing their jobs as well."
McClellan and his crew pulled two bodies from the living room, where they were found beneath some debris.
Three other children were recovered from the kitchen area. McClellan thought they were going to survive, but two died in the the ambulance and the other in an area hospital.
The children were home alone at the time, McClellan said, because their mother had briefly left to pick up her boyfriend from work. She reported the fire about 3:45 a.m. as she and her boyfriend attempted to rescue the children, he said.
Investigators from the Illinois State Fire Marshal's office were called to investigate the cause of the fire.
Police Chief Kendall Perry said when he arrived, he saw a police officer carrying one of the children to an ambulance and then saw another child brought to the ambulance.
"The fifth child was breathing and had a pulse when the ambulance left the scene," Perry said. "This is a very tough day in East St. Louis.
"It's a tough time for our guys. I am scheduling some debriefing and counseling for them. Seeing something like that could affect them long term. I hope our citizens will pray for them as well."
Eastern also wants everyone to remember the first responders who worked the scene.
"I think we forget about saying 'thank you' to them as well," Eastern said. "I know situations like these has to take a toll on them mentally, physically and spiritually.
"I will continue to lift them up in prayer, too. I also want the community to remember them in their prayers as well."
Remembering the children
Shontice Mosley of East St. Louis said the grandparents of the children live in the second-story apartment across the hall from where the fire broke out. She said her sister, Vanicia Mosley, is the grandmother of the children.
"She felt that they were safe because the grandmother and the grandfather were next door," Shontice Mosley said of Dunigan. "She felt that they were safe."
Mosley said Dunigan worked hard to give her children a home. They had moved to the apartment building earlier this year because there was a fire at their previous home on 18th Street, Mosley said.
Mosley described the children as "just fun loving kids."
Sharnell Hunt said she knew the children and their mother from their visits to a convenience store off 19th Street where she worked.
"I would see them all the time. They were beautiful children," said Hunt, who went to the fire scene Friday morning. She previously lived a block from the apartment building but now lives in Swansea.
"They used to come in the store with their mom," Hunt said. "It's so unfortunate the children lost their lives. I'm praying for their mother."
Late Friday morning, a large teddy bear, several smaller ones and a bouquet of balloons were placed in front of the building almost as soon as officers took down the yellow police line tape that had surrounded it.
Osce Pomerlee didn't know the children, but wanted to pay her respects to the family.
She had been badly burned in a house fire in East St. Louis in the 1980s and brought the balloons because the news of the children's death reminded her of what happened when she was 4.
"It touched me," she said of hearing about the children.
Carolyn Rice-Smith, who went to the scene early Friday, said it was a "somber" sight.
"It was simply just unimaginable," Rice-Smith said. "I was just numb.
"My heart broke for the mother and her entire family. I can't even imagine what that mother must be feeling. It's a lot to be taken in and absorbed. Only God can help her through such a tremendous loss. I am praying for her and her family and I hope many more people will lift them up in prayer."
As a mother herself, Jessica Johnson said she will be praying for Dunigan to find strength as she copes with her loss.
"This is a really hard one," said Johnson. "I pray for strength for the mother. I hope she can get the help she will need to pull through this tragedy. Whatever support she and her family needs, I pray they are able to get it."
School district assistance
Three of the five children were students in East St. Louis School District 189, the district confirmed Friday.
The district's crisis team went on the scene and is partnering with the Red Cross and Community Life Line to provide ongoing support services.
Counseling and other support services will be available for classmates when students go back to school Aug. 17. If families need support more urgently, the district said they may call the Family and Community Engagement Center at 618-646-3333.
BND reporter Megan Valley contributed information for this article.