Pastor Ben Hayes says he is trying to help his grieving community – emotionally, spiritually and financially.
Hayes is senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Dadeville, Alabama, where four youths were killed and dozens more injured in a shooting at a Sweet 16 birthday party on Saturday night.
The dead include Shaunkivia Nicole (Keke) Smith, 17, Philstavious (Phil) Dowdell, 18, Marsiah Emmanuel (Siah) Collins, 19, and Corbin Dahmontrey Holston, 23, the county coroner said Monday. The party was for Dowdell’s sister’s birthday.
So far, authorities have been tight-lipped about the investigation. It is unclear who may have started the shooting and why, or whether police made any arrests. sergeant. The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s Jeremy Burkett did not respond to questions at news conferences Sunday, and officials repeatedly asked others to provide information about the shooting.
Hayes – who spoke to survivors – described the shooter as male and said children at the party he spoke to did not recognize him.
Hayes is the senior pastor of Dadeville First Baptist Church and serves as chaplain for the Dadeville Police Department and the Dadeville High School football team. He personally knew two of the victims. Here is part of his Monday afternoon conversation with As it happens the host Nil Köksal.
Pastor Hayes, I’m so sorry this happened to you and your community. How are you this morning ?
We are tired. We are physically exhausted [and] emotionally. But in my travels around the community this morning, we’re holding up surprisingly well.
We see the names of four people killed in the shooting, four young people. What can you tell us about the young people you have known?
I knew Phil Dowdell [and] Keke. These two were athletes from our high school.
I didn’t know Keke very well. I knew her by sight and by talking to her. She was a manager for some teams and she was a special person, because she would do anything in the world for you. She helped wherever she could.
Phil whom I had known since I was chaplain to the Dadeville football team. Phil was a shining star. He had a great future ahead of him. Phil had a smile that, when he walked into a room, lit him up. He had a personality like you wouldn’t believe. A serious competitor on the court, but just a great guy off the court. Everyone loved him. Everyone respected him.
WATCH | The Dadeville teacher recalled Phil Dowdell during the wake:
Everything I’ve read confirms what you just said. You know, these two sound like young people who were so involved in everything they love to do, involved in their community. What kinds of things were they planning for the next stages of their lives?
Phil had received a scholarship to play football at Jacksonville State University here in Alabama. So he was going to go far. Phil was probably one of the most gifted athletes in that promotion at Alabama State.
And Keke… I know she had a bright future just because of her personality, because of her strength, her energy. I think she too would have gone far.
How did you learn filming?
I received a phone call. I was in bed, asleep, around 11:30 p.m. on Saturday night. I was told there had been a shooting and that Phil was dead. I immediately contacted our Chief of Police, since I am the Dadeville Police Chaplain, and asked if there was any way I could help. And he said he needed me to go to the hospital to help with crowd control.
How was the scene there?
When I arrived there were probably 250 people in the parking lot. Cars were everywhere. Ambulances were everywhere. Family members, friends, some of the students – some who had been to the party, some who had heard what had happened – were there.
It was a lot of grief, a lot of sadness, a lot of shock. This kind of thing does not happen in Dadeville, so no one expected it. We don’t have those kinds of problems here. And so it’s one of those situations where you get there and you’re just part of the crowd because everyone is just shocked and doesn’t know what to do.
And it’s a small place, a very connected place, right? Only a few thousand people live there?
We have just over 3,000 people here in Dadeville. The surrounding community is much larger…. But it’s a small town. It’s a very tight-knit community. Everyone knows everyone. And many people are related to others.
But because we are so close, we are a very strong community.
Did you have the opportunity to speak, pastor, to any of the families of the victims, their parents?
As a pastor, I had a full day on Sunday, then we had a prayer vigil for the community on Sunday evening.
I did not have the opportunity to speak immediately [family]. I spoke to extended families — aunts, uncles, cousins, that sort of thing.
How was your Sunday worship?
Very gloomy at first, but we believe there is hope.
We are a faith-based group of people here in Alabama and we believe that our hope goes beyond this world and goes beyond the tragedies of this world. And so while we were sad, we were also excited. We had a great time of worship celebrating life, talking about how we could get through this very difficult time with our faith in Christ and how we could use it to help those around us.
Did the authorities tell you anything about a suspect or suspects?
As a Dadeville Police Department chaplain and sworn officer, I am not free to share this information.
ALL RIGHT. The investigation is ongoing?
The investigation is ongoing. We’re asking the public to provide any video feeds, any photos they may have of what happened.
I will tell you that the students I spoke to personally saw the man and they did not know him. And that leads us to believe that he was not from our community, because, like I said, it’s a small town and everyone knows each other.
What will you do next, now, for your community?
We try to convey the message that we are here to help them. We raise funds for families. Just understand that most of us don’t have life insurance policies for our children, and so there will be extreme costs involved in arranging funerals for these families. There are going to be medical bills incurred. And we’re just trying to meet those needs by raising funds for them.
We will be available in schools. We will work with the school system to be there with other mental health care providers. And we’re going to have an ongoing presence in our community to try to help all of our people deal with this critical stress incident that happened on Saturday night.
With files from The Associated Press. Interview conducted by Katie Geleff. Questions and answers edited for length and clarity.