Three Dead, 5 Sick After Hundreds Feast at Church's Thanksgiving Dinner

A California church's Thanksgiving dinner ended in tragedy on the weekend when local health officials say three people died and five others became sick from an apparent food-borne illness after feasting with hundreds on Friday.

(Photo: REUTERS/Eric Thayer)A volunteer carves a deep fried turkey at a Thanksgiving dinner cooked and served by volunteers in the Staten Island borough of New York November 22, 2012.

Officials told The East Bay Times that the dinner held at the American Legion Hall in Antioch was sponsored by the Golden Hills Community Church and was attended by more than 800 people.

Golden Hills Community Church is a non-denominational congregation of more than 3,500 hosting multiple services spread over its two campuses located in Brentwood and Antioch. Officials say the feast was sponsored by the Brentwood campus.

Sutter Delta Medical Center in Antioch confirmed with The Associated Press on Monday that it received eight patients with probably food borne symptoms between Friday and Saturday. It says three of the patients died, four patients were treated and released and one remains hospitalized.

Dr. Marilyn Underwood, environmental health director for Contra Costa County Health Services, told the Times that all the people affected by the illness came from the same assisted living facility but declined to make the name of the facility public.

Golden Hills Community Church said in a statement that they were praying for the victims and are tracking the investigation of the deaths.

"We recently were informed that several people from the same care facility in Antioch, who were at our Antioch ­Thanksgiving dinner, became sick and it is reported that three of them have died. County Health officials have informed us that the source of the illness is not known and could have come from any of a number of sources," the church said.

"Our dinner in Antioch is only one of a number of possibilities that County Health is investigating. We are fully cooperating with health officials and are praying fervently for the families who lost loved ones and for others who are sick. We will try to post updates from County Health as we are made aware," the statement ended.

The church's Executive Director, Phil Hill, told the Times: "We don't have any other information."

"We do this out of love," Rona Tenorio, a church member who volunteers to put on the dinner each Thanksgiving, added. "It saddens me so much that this happened."

She explained that the people who generally attend the holiday dinners are homeless or don't have family.

"We just want them to share fellowship with us. It's open to all the public," she said.

The AP said volunteers prepared mashed potatoes, green beans and stuffing on site while the rest of the meal, including turkey, bread and pies, was donated by other organizations, according to Underwood.

Dr. Louise McNitt, the county's health officer, told the Times that when people began showing up at the hospital "the symptoms were nausea, vomiting, diarrhea," which are standard for a food-borne illness.

Authorities are now seeking to determine what organism is responsible for the illness.

Autrey James, commander at American Legion Post 161, told KRON 4 they were very upset about the deaths because the church group has been serving its Thanksgiving dinner at the facility for the past 20 years and there has never been a problem.

"We are extremely, extremely upset that anyone lost their lives," James said. "We were not ourselves involved in the cooking of the meal."