CLINTON – Thursday was a sad day at Douglas Elementary School, according to Clinton Assistant Superintendent of Schools Jeff Holmes.
Two of three children who drowned earlier this week at Clinton Lake were enrolled at the school.
"Douglas is a K-1-2 building, and we had many 3- and 4-year-old children in the early childhood program," Holmes said. "Death is a difficult concept for children of that age to understand."
Christopher Hamm, 6, a first-grader at Douglas, and Austin Brown, 3, who attended Douglas' early childhood program, died after a car that they were riding in plunged into the lake Tuesday night.
DeWitt County Coroner Alex Calvert said both boys were pronounced dead at 9:34 p.m. Tuesday at Dr. John Warner Hospital in Clinton.
The boys' sister, Kyleigh Hamm, 23 months old, also died following the incident.
Calvert said Kyleigh was airlifted to St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, where she was declared dead at 2:08 p.m. Wednesday.
Calvert said preliminary results of autopsies performed Wednesday on the boys and one performed Thursday on Kyleigh by Dr. Bryan Mitchell in Bloomington indicated that all three children died of drowning.
Calvert said that toxicology results won't be known for another 10 days.
He added that inquests on the three deaths will probably be conducted within the next 30 days.
The children's mother, Amanda Hamm, 28, of Clinton, and her boyfriend, Maurice Lagrone Jr., 28, who listed an address in Clinton, escaped from the car before it submerged.
Lagrone was charged with driving under the influence and driving with a suspended license following the incident, according to Dewitt County State's Attorney Jerry Johnson.
Dewitt County Sheriff Roger Massey said Thursday police had not yet determined whether the plunge was an accident.
"We don't want to blow this up into something it's not," Massey said. "But, on the other side, we've got three children who are dead. Nobody knows exactly what happened."
Massey confirmed that tickets were issued to Lagrone. He was not in custody this morning.
Circuit court records indicated Lagrone was cited in July for failing to wear a seat belt, a case that is still pending. He had no prior convictions in DeWitt County.
Holmes said Christopher and Austin had been attending classes since the fall semester began Aug. 20.
"Once we found out about the death of the boys, we sent a letter home indicating that there had been a tragedy," Holmes said. "We wanted to give the parents an opportunity to discuss what happened with their children. Then we had all the teachers read a prepared statement to all the children this morning explaining what had happened."
Holmes said three counselors were assigned to the school Thursday to assist students and staff.
Meanwhile, at the bustling Grecian Gardens restaurant, where Amanda Hamm works at a waitress, restaurant manager Brenda Fouts said the employees there were trying hard to hold back tears in the aftermath of the loss of Hamm's three children.
Fouts said Hamm had worked at the restaurant for about six weeks.
"She usually worked here in the mornings," Fouts said. "She seemed pretty nice and was a good worker. When you get to work with someone for a while, you get to know that person pretty well."
Fouts said the three children and Hamm's boyfriend visited often.
"They were such cute children," Fouts said. "We're all going to miss them."
Hamm's co-workers were planning to solicit donations to help the family with its expenses.
Meanwhile, a 3-foot wooden cross near the ramp at Clinton Lake was adorned with a baseball bat, ball and glove; a photo of Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa; a baseball card; and a note saying, "We love you, Christopher."
Massey said Amanda Hamm dialed 911 from a pay phone at the boat ramp at about 7:45 p.m. Tuesday.
She told dispatchers a car had gone into the water with her children in it.
Sheriff's Deputy Bruce Randolph and Sgt. Tim Collins arrived a few minutes later, opened the door to the submerged car and retrieved the three children.
"It was the worst thing I've ever seen because they pulled these kids out and gave them CPR," said Kevin Barlow, the publisher and editor of the Clinton Daily Journal.
Barlow said he arrived at the scene just behind the ambulance, according to The Associated Press.
"The mother was absolutely hysterical," he said. "The boyfriend was trying to keep her away from the shore."
Massey said the children were submerged for 10 to 15 minutes.
Calvert said the children had three different fathers, but he did not identify them.
Johnson said he has removed himself from the case because the grandmother of the three children is one of his secretaries.
Attorney Roger Simpson of Monticello – a former state's attorney for Piatt County – was appointed as a special prosecutor late Thursday because Hamm's mother works in Johnson's office. Simpson declined to comment about the investigation.
Amanda Hamm and Lagrone were not at their home Thursday, but their neighbors in the apartment complex on Clinton's east edge said they had no doubt the deaths were accidental.
"She's a good mother. She loved her children," Emily Strange said of her neighbor.
"Although Lagrone was not the father to any of the children, he treated them as his own," said Joshua E. Durbin, a neighbor two doors down. "Those kids were the world to Maurice," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
You can reach Tim Mitchell at (217) 351-5366 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.