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Fire in East St. Louis kills five children

Fire in East St. Louis kills five children

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Five children who died in East St. Louis fire

Family photos (left to right) of twins Neveah Dunigan and Heaven Dunigan; Jabari Johnson; Loy-el Dunigan; and Deontae Davis.

UPDATED with new information from coroner, including corrected spellings

EAST ST. LOUIS — An early-morning fire that killed five siblings younger than 10 Friday occurred on their mother’s birthday and just months after their previous home was destroyed by another fire.

The latest fire was reported about 3 a.m. on the second floor of an apartment building at 560 North 29th Street, across from the playground at Annette Harris Officer Elementary School in East St. Louis.

Police and fire investigators haven’t said what caused this blaze or commented on the one at the family’s previous address. The case is under investigation by local authorities and the Illinois fire marshal’s office.

The children died on their mother’s birthday, hours before a friend was supposed to arrive with balloons for a party for Sabrina Dunigan.

St. Clair County Coroner Calvin Dye Sr. said four of the children were found dead inside the apartment building and a fifth died at a hospital. He said the children ranged in age from 2 to 9 years old.

Dye identified the victims as a 2-year-old girl, Loy-el Dunigan; a 4-year-old boy, Jabari Johnson; twin 8-year-old girls Heaven and Neveah "Veah" Dunigan; and a 9-year-old boy, Deontae Davis.

The coroner said autopsies would likely be performed next week, although a date hasn't been set. The official causes of death won't be determined until then.

“It’s a wipeout,” paternal great-grandmother Francine Moore said, describing how the multiple deaths impacted her family. “By the grace of God (we) are holding up.”

The children, their mother and two maternal grandparents began living in the apartment after a fire five months ago destroyed their previous home, around 19th Street in East St. Louis, said a relative, Shontice Mosley.

Fire officials initially indicated that no adults were in the apartment when Friday’s predawn blaze started. Sabrina Dunigan, the mother, had left to give someone a ride or run an errand and returned home to discover the flames, authorities said.

But police later explained that investigators were trying to sort out if the children were left unattended or if one or both grandparents were with them.

East St. Louis fire kills 5 children

Duwanna Davis waits to leave a teddy bear donated by 7-year-old Malaya Cannon in memory of the five children who died in an East St. Louis apartment fire in the 500 block of 29th Street on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

Greg Dunigan, the father of Sabrina Dunigan, told the Post-Dispatch that he and his wife, Vanicia Mosley, smelled smoke and escaped the fire by jumping out the back from the second floor. Vanicia is blind.

Vanicia’s sister, Shontice Mosley, said Greg Dunigan and Vanicia Mosley were staying in the back of the apartment complex and the children were near the front.

“The fire was already too bad in the part where the children slept” for the grandparents to rescue them, Mosley explained, adding that Vanicia was treated for smoke inhalation.

At daybreak Friday, black soot covered the brick over a second-floor window facing 29th Street, and flames had melted what appeared to be vinyl covering another opening.

The Child Death Investigation Task Force, a regional police unit, was interviewing neighbors and relatives, in part to determine whether the children were alone when the fire broke out.

East St. Louis fire kills 5 children

Sabrina Dunigan, the mother of five children killed in an East St. Louis apartment fire, leaves the scene of the fire in the 500 block of 29th Street on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. Several family members identified Dunigan as the mother of the children. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

The apartment was essentially a one-bedroom unit converted by the family into two living areas: one room for the children and their mother, and one room for the grandparents, Mosley said. A kitchen separated the spaces.

Mosley said the extended family of eight had moved into the apartment after being burned out of their previous home earlier this year. They all escaped injury in that fire, and Mosley said she didn’t know the cause but said it wasn’t suspicious. Officials weren’t available for comment.

Sabrina Dunigan, who works with her father trimming trees, was a single parent. She spoke with investigators after Friday’s fire and then left in a private vehicle.

Moore, the paternal great-grandmother of Jabari, waited hours in the neighborhood Friday as police and fire investigators did their work. Moore and about 10 other relatives and friends stood just behind a police line, less than a block from the home, watching to see when the bodies would be removed by coroner’s technicians. They were struggling to cope with the death of Jabari and his siblings.

Jeri Johnson, the paternal grandmother of Jabari, said the boy was due to start preschool this fall.

“Jabari was happy,” she said.

Johnson’s son was the father of Jabari and lived elsewhere.

For Dunigan’s birthday party, Arthur Robinson, a friend of the family, was supposed to bring a boombox, balloons, a table and chairs by 8 a.m.

“I fell to my knees and almost passed out when I heard they were gone,” he said. “It’s very troubling.”

Robinson said Dunigan “was a great mother, a responsible mother.”

He added, “She’s just young and frail, but she keeps up with her kids. If she left those kids, she couldn’t have gone far.”

East St. Louis fire kills 5 children

Duwanna Davis arranges teddy bears and balloons in memory of five children who died in an East St. Louis apartment fire in the 500 block of 29th Street on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

Authorities were unable to immediately confirm whether the apartment building had working smoke detectors.

Rudy McIntosh, who retired from the East St. Louis Police Department in 2019 after 24 years as an officer, told the Post-Dispatch that he’s owned the building for three decades and that it had smoke detectors.

“All my buildings do,” he said.

The building is a four-family flat, and he said the other three units were occupied and that those residents were not hurt.

A man who lives in the basement of the building, however, said he heard no smoke alarms.

“I thought there was a fight upstairs. I heard a lot of commotion with hollering and screaming,” said Kenneth Jennings, 52. “Then I smelled smoke and ran out.”

On Friday night, more than 50 people gathered at the scene for a vigil organized by the Rev. Doug Hollis and several other community members and clergymen from St. Louis and the Metro East.

Attendees left teddy bears and balloons to commemorate the children. After prayers and songs, attendees released balloons in honor of Dunigan’s birthday.

“Don’t bash her — embrace her. She took care of those kids,” said Terra Jenkins, also known as T-Baby, a community host and advocate in the Metro East. “Can you imagine five caskets? We’ve seen three, we might have seen four but never five.”

Many family members declined to speak during the vigil, while some thanked the attendees.

The family’s neighbor, Alonzo Wright, announced during the vigil that he decided to auction off his vehicle, a 1998 Camaro, to help with funeral expenses.

Wright said he saw the fire once it was already out of control, and he regretted he was not able to help retrieve the children.

“I don’t have any money,” he said, “but this is what I can do to help.”

Family and friends have set up fundraisers through GoFundMe.

Taylor Tiamoyo Harris of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.


Kim Bell covers breaking news for STLtoday.com and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Follow her on Twitter here.

Kenneth Jennings escaped a fire in his apartment building where five children died on Aug. 6, 2021. Video by Robert Cohen/Post-Dispatch

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