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Pallbearers enter the chapel at Fort Rucker with the casket of student Michael Joseph Bowen.
AP photo by Danny Tindell
Pallbearers enter the chapel at Fort Rucker with the casket of student Michael Joseph Bowen.

A community mourns
First funeral services held for Enterprise High School students

By Desiree Hunter
Associated Press Writer

FORT RUCKER — With bandaged, bruised teenagers wiping at tears, Michael Bowen was remembered for his upbeat, sturdy character and faith Monday as a grieving community began burying the first of eight students killed when a tornado tore apart Enterprise High School.

"He was always our rock," said his stepfather, LaVaughn Steward. "I know today who my hero is. My hero is Michael."

He spoke as more than 750 people packed a chapel at Fort Rucker, the Army's helicopter flight training base in southeast Alabama that borders Enterprise. Other funeral services were planned Monday and Tuesday in the Enterprise area for teenagers killed in a hallway when a wall and concrete roof collapsed Thursday in the storm.

Before a coffin draped in white, mourners talked about Bowen trying to save Katie Strunk, a classmate who died in the hallway. They said he was found with his arms around her.

"Michael was a big guy with an even bigger heart," said Francisco Paulino, who was also in the hallway. "Even to the end he stuck to his values."

"He loved anything that had to do with flying," said Blake Enfinger, who knew Bowen from the Our Lady of Loretto Parish on base and sang at the service. "I'll just really miss his optimistic look on life and his ability to always make you laugh or smile. That's what I'll miss the most."

Along with the eight students killed at the high school, 83-year-old Edna Hayes Strickland died at her Enterprise home from injuries when the tornado hit her house. Funeral services were held for her Sunday.

A separate tornado at Millers Ferry in Wilcox County in rural west Alabama killed Cliff Gaston, 48. Neighbors said he was at his mobile home on his lunch break when it was destroyed by the tornado.

Services were also held for Strunk and Michelle Wilson on Monday. More than 300 mourners gathered at Searcy Funeral Home for Wilson's service conducted by G. Lance Hogan. Many students, bent over in tears during the funeral, were comforted by nearby parents. Others sat together, holding hands.

Hogan described Wilson as a "beautiful and pleasant woman with a sweet, kind spirit and joy of life." He said teachers told him of how the girl brought a smile to their faces and that joy just radiated from her. Wilson was eager to learn and the teachers told Hogan how much they appreciated her.

"We have glad memories," he said. "And now all of us are struggling with this memory of saying goodbye."

College Avenue Church of Christ youth minister Brendan Chance remembered Strunk as fun-loving, caring and sincerely kind.

"How can a 16-year-old affect so many lives," asked Rev. Keith Ellis, referring to the more than 1,000 people who packed the church. "I believe it was her mission given by God."

Strunk's father, Dirk, is a football coach at nearby New Brockton High School and his players came out to support him. Strunk's mother, Kathy, is a teacher at Enterprise High School and was at the school on Thursday trying to keep her students safe.

Mourners at Bowen's funeral remembered his $1 million smile, which he was quick to flash to strangers and friends alike.

The 16-year-old Bowen, an 11th grader who played trumpet in the school band, also played basketball and was an altar server at his parish.

"You don't see many religious kids," Lenae Falcone, who attends the church with her two children, said after the service. "How many 16-year-olds want to be altar servers? Usually it's the little kids, but he was there. He was a genuine kid."

Bowen's stepfather, who is stationed at Fort Rucker, has served in Iraq and is scheduled to be deployed there again, according to Bowen's classmates.

Five of the eight students who died have ties to Fort Rucker, where their parents either serve in military assignments or work as contractors. Among those scheduled for funeral services Tuesday is 17-year-old Michael D. "Mikey" Tompkins, a student whose father was serving in Iraq when he died and who returned home for the burial.

Also Tuesday, a joint funeral is planned for two best friends who died together in the hallway, Andrew Joel "A.J." Jackson, 16, and Ryan Andrew Mohler, 17.

Courtney Bowden, an Enterprise High School student who was bruised and suffered gashes on her head from falling debris, said she spent about half an hour talking to Bowen as they sat in the hallway Thursday, before it collapsed in the storm.

"He was everything that everyone said in there," she said outside the Army base chapel.

Her father is chaplain at Fort Rucker, where efforts were being made to help young people cope with the tragedy. School is to remain out for the remainder of the week as plans are made on where classes can be held.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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