Ben Strong's arms were still around his friends. The prayer was over... and the prayer group meeting in the hallway near the administrative offices at Heath High School was just beginning to break up so members could head off to class. Then the shooting started.
"I just heard a pop, and I spun around," says Ben, a lanky 17-year-old with a sincere but sparse goatee. He yelled, "Mike, what are you doing?" Michael Carneal, a freshman Ben had befriended earlier in the school year, didn't respond. He just kept firing. Ben stood stunned for a a few seconds-long enough for Michael to spend 10 rounds or more from the .22-caliber automatic Ruger-then he roused himself and rushed toward his friend, but paused about 10 feet away from him. "Put the gun down, Mike," he said.
Michael, 14, was taking aim at Principal Bill Bond, who had heard the first shots and had run into the hallway. But instead of shooting, Michael dropped his gun. Ben approached and opened his arms. The senior held the younger boy and softly told him to calm down. Michael slumped back into a locker, and responded, "I can't believe I'd do this."
Michael Carneal has confessed to but offered no reason for the shooting last Monday that resulted in three deaths and five people wounded. Slain were Kayce Steger, 15; Nicole Hadley, 14; and Jessica James, 17. The wounded included Kelly Hard, 16; Craig Keene, 15; Melissa Jenkins, 15; Hollan Holme, 14; and Shelley Schaberg, 17. Melissa Jenkins is reported to be paralyzed from the waist down. She was also one of the first victims to send a message through Ben: "Tell Michael I forgive him."
Michael is the son of a prominent Paducah attorney. Prosecutor Timothy Kaltenbach said he will seek the maximum penalty of life in prison without possibility of parole for 25 years if the youth is tried as an adult. Officials aren't convinced he acted alone (though he was the only shooter). He brought five guns and more than 600 rounds of ammunition into the school, bundled in a blanket. He told a teacher that the bundle he carried was a class project.
There was a serious shortage of information about Michael Carneal during the hours and days after the shooting. Officials explored any leads. The McCracken County Sheriff contacted his counterparts in Pearl, Miss., where a high-school boy apparently belonging to a Satanic cult is charged with murdering his mother and two students at school in October. Paducah officials wanted to explore a possible link. Ben dismisses this portrait. "Michael was always a happy, kind of hyper guy," he says. "He was always laughing and joking around."
It's true Michael hung around with kids who wore black and cultivated gloom, and sometimes a few cracks were made by kids (including Michael) as they walked past the prayer circle, which meets every morning. But Michael "knelt at the altar, professed his faith in Christ" at his parents' church, St. Paul's Lutheran (Missouri Synod), last spring. The pastor, Paul Donner, said at a news conference he firmly believes Michael is a born-again Christian. He made no attempt to explain why a Christian would do such a thing. And calls to the church for an explanation were not returned.
Principal Bond and Sheriff Frank Augustus suggested a theory by Tuesday afternoon; Michael had suffered teasing about his height, they said, and perhaps rage had built up within the boy. In an interview with authorities, Michael had mentioned viewing a scene in a movie, The Basketball Diaries, a dream sequence in which a student mercilessly shoots classmates. The 1995 heroin-chic film is loosely based on a book by the same name about a high-school basketball player whose drug abuse nearly destroys him. Mr. Bond reviewed Michael's essays from years past and said the writings implied the boy felt powerless and picked on. But no one in the prayer group had teased him.
"He struck out in anger at the world," Mr. Bond said. With his tone, Mr. Bond seemed to admit the theory was weak. But it was something. Reporters, at their third press conference of the day in the school's gym, dutifully scribbled it down.
At a Wednesday night prayer service, Ben was at the keyboard while another youth, Josh, played guitar. Rev. Bobby Strong, Ben's father and pastor here at Concord Assembly of God Church, said he was determined that the evening remain a praise service, not a memorial. But the subject of the shooting was like a whirlpool, irresistible. After a few words of welcome, Rev. Strong talked softly about the moment on Monday when he saw his son standing in the gymnasium, safe and sound. "I was so relieved, so grateful," he confessed. There's an edge of guilt. He knew that while his heart was leaping, the hearts of other parents were breaking.
Survivor's guilt lingers for many in West Paducah. Ben wonders what more he could have done. Michael Carneal hinted at his plan to Ben the week before. On Friday morning, Michael told Ben to stay away from the prayer meeting; "Something big is going to happen," he told the older student. Ben asked what was going to happen, and Michael wouldn't say. Ben joked that if he tried anything, he'd beat Michael up. "You're not going to be able to beat me up after this," he responded.
Ben says he laughed it off. The two had horsed around before. He also says he thought about reporting Michael's veiled threat to school officials, but decided against it, thinking that if Michael was truly troubled, bringing in authority figures might make things worse.
"I was afraid that if I called adults, it would make him more upset and something worse would happen," Ben says. "I was hoping he was just joking." That decision troubles Ben. When he talks about it now, his words are halting and unsure. He came through the morning massacre physically unharmed, but he was not unwounded.
At Wednesday night's service, another youth who was at the Monday morning prayer meeting seemed to be struggling with another kind of guilt. Desiree lived while three of her friends died. She's a small girl, blonde with dark eyes and delicate hands. Throughout the service, her emotions were in check. But when Rev. Strong prayed over her, thanking God she's safe, the tears began coursing down her face. Ben, who was praying nearby, glanced over at her. In a few moments, he went over and offered her the only comfort he could-his arms. He also hugged Michael Carneal's sister, who returned to school on Wednesday.
"We've got to remember Michael's family also," he said before a prayer. "They're hurting, too. He's hurting. I could see it, I could feel it when I went up to him."
The ACLU would be beside itself, grins Chuck Geveden, a former policeman who now works with the youth group at another Paducah church. Most of the "grief counselors" called in to help the students at the small high school deal with the deaths were ministers and youth workers. "We were praying right there in the public school," he says. "God is at work, and he's doing something mighty."
Mr. Geveden looks to be 6' 2", 200 lbs., solid and confident enough to make even gawky adolescents open up to him. "The thing the kids are asking most is 'Why?' And all I can tell them is that what Satan means for evil, God can bring good out of. And it's already happening."
The morning prayer meetings usually attract 25 to 30 kids; on Tuesday morning, nearly half the school-more than 250 students-attended. A number of the youth ministers who have compared notes all say that they've led kids to Christ in the aftermath of the shooting.
Ben nods. "God's the only [one] we can turn to in something like this; and a lot of people are turning to him. I believe God can bring revival out of this."
Next to Chuck Geveden, Ben seems slight. He's a defensive end and offensive guard on the school's 2A football team, but at 6' 0", 150 lbs., he's nowhere near big enough to be a college lineman. That's okay; he wants to focus on music and the ministry when he gets to college. He plans to be a pastor one day, like his father. It's clear he has a pastor's heart. As the service closed, he stood behind several of the other students. And as he asked God to strengthen them, to support them, he stepped into the circle. And he took them in his arms.