St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Aug. 22—EAST ST. LOUIS — Five tiny metal caskets lined the front of the church Saturday, each wrapped in a custom vinyl design.
A picture of a pony for the youngest child, 2-year-old Loy-el.
Scenery from a favorite video game on the casket of the oldest child, 9-year-old Deontae.
All five caskets, bathed in pinks and blues.
Sabrina Dunigan’s five children died Aug. 6 in a predawn fire, its cause still undetermined. Their grandfather and his wife jumped from the apartment’s second floor while Dunigan was away picking up her boyfriend.
“The community is hurting,” East St. Louis Mayor Robert Eastern III said before Saturday’s funeral. “We stand in support of the mom, emotionally and spiritually.”
The mayor was a boy 40 years ago and vaguely recalls 11 children dying in an East St. Louis house fire while their mother was out gambling. Stories of that tragedy still circulate in town.
But Eastern and others in the crowd Saturday of some 300 mourners experienced a similarly moving event: five coffins, five hearses.
The mourners, masked due to COVID-19 rules, sat shoulder to shoulder inside Greater St. Mark Church of God in Christ. All eyes were on Sabrina Dunigan, sobbing and so overcome by sadness that her legs went nearly limp and she leaned on a woman ushering her to the front pew.
In addition to Loy-el Dunigan and her brother, Deontae Davis, the siblings who died were a 4-year-old boy, Jabari Johnson, and twin 8-year-old girls, Heaven and Neveah “Veah” Dunigan.
Sheila Dunigan, the children’s great-aunt, spoke directly to Sabrina Dunigan from the lectern.
“We all know, your whole entire family knows, that you were a great mom and loved those children,” she said.
Deontae was remembered as being protective of his sisters. He wanted to be a policeman when he grew up. Neveah loved butterflies and nature. Heaven enjoyed playing dress up. Jabari loved all kinds of food and food shows. And Loy-el had a smile that could light up a room.
Cause still unknown
Hanging over the solemn church ceremony were questions about how the children died.
The Illinois state fire marshal’s office said Friday afternoon that the fire that killed Dunigan’s children was still under investigation. The children died of smoke inhalation, but the manner of death — such as an accident or homicide — is still undetermined, coroner Calvin Dye Sr. said.
Sabrina Dunigan and her father, Greg Dunigan, both previously told the Post-Dispatch they suspect it was an electrical fire and said the cramped apartment lacked smoke detectors. The landlord countered, saying he put smoke detectors in all of his rental properties.
Fire officials initially indicated the children had been left home alone, but Greg Dunigan said he and his wife live in a separate part of the one-bedroom apartment and woke to the smoke. He said flames forced him back and he couldn’t get to the grandchildren.
Sabrina Dunigan had returned to North 29th Street about 3 a.m. that day, her birthday, to find her apartment filled with smoke and fire, she has said. Dunigan, 34, said she suffered burns on her arms and feet trying to reach her children but couldn’t save them.
For three hours Saturday, attendees at the visitation filed past the colorful display of closed caskets. George McClellan, the city’s assistant fire chief, paused and placed his hand on each casket. Another man using a cane emerged from the church after viewing them and said, “That was painful.”
Marshata Caradine was outside the church and hoisted a pink neon sign in support of the children’s mother. Caradine, a lifelong resident of East St. Louis, had never met Dunigan but said she feels for her immense loss.
In the days leading to the funeral, Tan Gates, executive assistant at Serenity Memorial Chapel funeral home, shopped for clothing in blues and pinks to dress the children for burial, at the request of their mother. Tiaras and princess dresses for the twins. Matching bow ties and vests for the boys.
“I know their mother will never forget that night” of the fire, Gates said in an interview, “but I wanted her last memory of them wearing this to be just beautiful.”
Fundraisers are active
Relatives and friends of Sabrina Dunigan held fundraisers. One that raised at least $14,700 as of Saturday will be distributed through GoFundMe.com with Dunigan as beneficiary. A woman who set it up promoted the fund as raising money for the funeral and to support the mother.
Gates said the funeral home didn’t want to draw from those funds, and instead Serenity Memorial Chapel, the Casino Queen and the East St. Louis Democratic Central Committee paid for the funeral, and businessman Courtney Hoffman paid for the burial.
Greg Dunigan, Sabrina’s father, said he isn’t benefitting from any community contributions. Since the fire, he and his wife have no home and are sleeping sitting up in a two-seater pickup he uses for his tree-trimming business.
As he mourns, Greg Dunigan said he is angry about the fire and its circumstances but keeps coming back to thoughts of his sweet, obedient grandchildren. He was closest to Deontae, he said, and was happy to teach many things to the boy, who in turn taught his younger siblings.
“We went fishing all the time,” Greg Dunigan said. “They loved it.”
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