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Students killed in Alabama shooting had bright futures ahead of them, says pastor 

Pastor Ben Hayes of Dadeville, Ala., personally knew two of the young people killed at a shooting during a birthday party on Saturday night.

Keke Smith was ‘a special kind of person,’ and Phil Dowdell a rising football star, says Pastor Ben Hayes

Four teenage girls embrace in a crowd.

As It Happens6:40Students killed in Alabama shooting had bright futures ahead of them, says pastor

Pastor Ben Hayes says he's trying to help his grieving community — emotionally, spiritually and financially.

Hayes is senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Dadeville, Ala., where four young people 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.

Authorities have been tight-lipped about the investigation so far. It's not clear who may have started the shooting and why, or whether police have made any arrests. Sgt. Jeremy Burkett of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency did not take questions during news conferences Sunday, and officials repeatedly asked others to come forward with information on the shooting.

Hayes — who has been talking to survivors — described the shooter as male, and said the kids at the party that he's spoken to didn't recognize him.

Hayes is the senior pastor at Dadeville First Baptist Church, and serves as the 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 conversation on Monday afternoon with As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

Pastor Hayes, I'm so sorry that this has happened to you and your community. How are you holding up this morning?

We are tired. We are drained physically [and] emotionally. But in my journeys around the community this morning, we are holding up surprisingly well.

We're seeing the names of four people killed in the shooting, four young people. What can you tell us about the young people you knew?

I knew Phil Dowdell [and] Keke. Both of these were athletes at our high school.

I did not know Keke very well. I knew her by sight and talking to her. She was a manager for some teams and she was a special kind of person, because she would do anything in the world for you. She helped out everywhere she could.

Phil I knew since I was the chaplain of the Dadeville football team. Phil was a bright star. He had a tremendous future ahead of him. Phil had a smile that when he walked into a room, just brightened it up. He had a personality like you wouldn't believe. A strong competitor on the field, but just a great guy off the field. Everybody loved him. Everybody respected him.

WATCH | Dadeville teacher remembers Phil Dowdell during vigil:

Teacher and coach 'lost for words' after Alabama shooting

11 hours ago

Duration 0:55

Mardracus Russell, a history teacher and assistant track and field coach at Dadeville High School, attends a vigil for the four young people killed Saturday in a shooting at a birthday party. He remembers Phil Dowdell, 18, as a star athlete who had a bright future ahead of him.

Everything I've been reading underlines what you've just said. You know, these both 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 steps in 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 of this graduating class in the state of Alabama.

And Keke … I know that she had a bright future just because of her personality, because of her strength, her energy. I think she, too, would have went far.

How did you find out about the shooting?

I received a phone call. I was in bed, asleep, about 11:30 on Saturday night. I was told that there had been a shooting and that Phil was dead. I immediately reached out to our chief of police, since I'm the chaplain for the Dadeville police officers, and asked if there was any way that I could help. And he said he needed me to go to the hospital to help with crowd control.

What was the scene there like?

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 at 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 doesn't happen in Dadeville, so no one was expecting it. We don't have these 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 does not know what to do.

A group of teenagers hold each other. Some cry, others bow their heads.

And it's a small place, a very connected place, right? Just a few thousand people live there?

We have a little over 3,000 people here in Dadeville. The surrounding community is much larger…. But it is a small town. It is a very close-knit community. Everybody knows everybody. And a lot of folks are related to others.

But because we're so close knit, we're a very strong community.

Have you had a chance to speak, pastor, to any of the victims' families, their parents?

As a pastor, I had a full day on Sunday and then we did a prayer vigil for the community on Sunday night.

I've not had an opportunity to talk to the immediate [family]. I have talked to extended families — aunts, uncles, cousins, those kinds of things.

What was your Sunday service like?

Very sombre to begin with, but we believe that there's hope.

We are a faith-based bunch of folks down 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 as we celebrated life, as we talked about how we could make it through this very difficult time with our faith in Christ, and how we could use that to help those around us.

Two pairs of people embrace within a larger crowd.

Have authorities told you anything about a suspect or suspects?

As a chaplain for the Dadeville Police Department and a sworn officer, I'm not at liberty to share any of that information.

OK. The investigation is ongoing?

The investigation is ongoing. We are asking the public to provide any video feeds, any pictures that they may have of what took place.

I will tell you that the students that I talked 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, as I say, this is a small town and everybody knows everybody.

What will you do next, now, for your community?

We're trying to get the word out that we are here to help them. We are raising money for the families. Just understand that most of us do not carry life insurance policies on our children, and so there will be extreme costs involved in providing funerals for these families. There are going to be medical costs incurred. And we're just trying to take care of those needs by raising money for them.

We are going to be available at the schools. We'll be working with the school system to be there along with other mental health providers. And we're going to have an ongoing presence in our community trying to help all of our people to deal with this critical stress incident that took place on Saturday night.

With files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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