EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. — Five children were killed in an overnight apartment fire in East St. Louis early Friday morning.
The fire broke out after 3 a.m. on N 29th Street near State Street. Assistant Fire Chief George McClellan with the East St. Louis Fire Department said the children are between the ages of 2 and 9.
The children's mother was not home at the time because she had left to pick up another adult from work. When she returned, she went back inside the unit several times to try to rescue her children, McClellan said.
One team of firefighters worked to suppress the flames while another searched the apartment. Two children were found dead and three more were pulled out with a weak pulse, but two of them later died at the scene of the fire.
"The guys are taking it pretty hard," McClellan said. "We have a probie. This was his first fire, and he gets to see four kids die."
A fifth child was taken to the hospital and died later Friday morning.
"They're blameless in this. They're kids. It's tough. It's tough," McClellan said.
The mother was physically OK but distraught at the scene.
Family members identified her as Sabrina Dunigan and told 5 On Your Side this isn't the first time she has been the victim of a house fire. In 2019, she and her five children were displaced by a fire at their East St. Louis home.
At the time of that fire, she told reporters and investigators that she thought the fire was set by her boyfriend.
"We're just telling him he has to leave, and he said he was gonna set the house on fire," she said back in 2019.
On Friday, family members said of the 2019 fire, "that case was settled."
The family also provided photos of the children killed in the fire.
Seven people lived in the home.
5 On Your Side spoke with Kenneth Jennings who lived in the basement of the building. He said he was home when the fire started and was first alerted when he heard noises in the floors above.
"I'm hearing people moving," Jennings recalled. "I said, 'something ain't right.' I hear hollering."
At that point, Jennings said the room started getting cloudy and he could smell smoke. He put his shoes on and ran out.
"I saw the police and everybody trying to get in," Jennings said, adding that the fire spread quickly. "They couldn't even get in. By the time they did, it was burnt up. They couldn't even hardly get in."
Jennings thought everybody made it out safely until he heard the children's mother screaming and learned the kids were still inside.
The man said he didn't know the family well other than waving and saying hello from time to time, but Friday morning he was shaken by the news that all five children died in the fire.
"Hurt. Man, it was messed up; it just hurt bad," Jennings said. "Man, never seen it before, it just... I was almost in tears."
The cause of the fire is under investigation. East St. Louis fire officials told 5 On Your Side state investigators are looking into it.
Late Friday morning, mourners were seen gathering outside the house. They placed several stuffed animals and balloons on the front porch of the home, which still had police caution tape across the front door. The memorial on the charred front steps grew as the afternoon went on.
This is a developing story. It will be updated as 5 On Your Side confirms more information.