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Shattered school days - Even those closest to teen cannot answer why

PADUCAH, Ky. -- It began Friday morning with a gentle but firm warning from Michael Carneal as he sidled up to his friend, Ben Strong, between classes at Heath High School. "Stay away from Bible study," Strong recalls the freshman whispering. "Something big is going to happen." Strong laughed it off. Though a senior and an athlete whose social circles were vastly different from Carneal's, Strong considered the two of them friends, and knew that Carneal liked pulling pranks. "I asked him what was going to happen," says Strong, 17. "He wouldn't tell me. Then I joked that I'd beat him up if he tried anything." Carneal remained serious. "You're not going to be able to beat me up after this," he said, walking off quietly.
The two would not meet again until Monday morning, when a deadly confrontation highlighted the unusual relationship between two very different teen-agers.

Police say the 14-year-old calmly put in ear plugs, pulled out a .22-caliber handgun and opened fire on 35 students participating in their weekly prayer circle held in the front lobby of the school just before classes began.

As Carneal fired more than a dozen rounds, witnesses said, Strong rushed to his classmate and begged him to put down the weapon. By then, three students had been fatally wounded and five others lay bleeding on the floor.

Authorities still don't know what provoked the rampage: Carneal apologized after the shooting, but has yet to give an explanation for it.

Most people agree on one thing: When Strong stepped in front of his classmate, he probably prevented more casualties.

When Carneal opened fire on his classmates, it was Strong's words that persuaded the freshman to let go of the pistol, slouch against the wall, and wait silently for authorities. "I have no doubt, Ben saved my life," Bill Bond, principal of Heath High School, said Tuesday. "It was his courage."

The differences between the youths are quietly obvious.

Carneal was an awkward freshman, Strong is finishing his last year of school. Carneal was quiet, shied away from sports, and hung out with self-professed atheists fascinated with the occult. Strong, the outgoing son of a pastor, plays for the varsity football team, and leads the school's Bible study class.

Yet they forged a friendship of sorts. Classmates say the two respected one another, and never argued over religion.

They saw each other at school functions and at lunch, and joked and jostled when they bumped into each other in hallways. When Strong took to the football field with his team, Carneal took his seat with the school band, playing baritone sax.

In recent weeks, school officials say, Carneal had begun attending the informal Bible study classes. Not as participant, but as spectator. Occasionally, he joined other students who taunted the group as members bowed their heads in prayer. More often he stood yards from the circle, watching in silence.

By most accounts, Carneal was a solid student. He maintained better than a "B" average, and had virtually no discipline record, school officials say. A lifelong resident of Paducah, he and his family attended St. Paul Lutheran Church in the center of this western Kentucky community of 27,256.

"I've turned it over in my head a dozen times, and I still can't figure out how this kind of thing happens," says Randy Wright, vice-chairman of the McCracken County School Board. Carneal "was a good kid. It doesn't add up," he says.

Indeed, administrators had little reason to suspect trouble. Since its inception in 1910, Heath High School has never had to suspend a student for bringing a weapon to class.

There are no metal detectors, no security guards roaming the halls or questioning the 600 students who attend the four year public school. Located just west of Paducah in the community of Future City, and about 150 miles from Nashville, Heath is far removed from big-city problems. "We've had fights, kids get a little too rowdy, typical disruptions," says school superintendent Tilford Underwood. "Nothing serious. This isn't like big-city schools."

Still, differences exist. While officials deny there are full-fledged cult followers at the school, a small group of students seems fascinated by the topic. Their interest is attributed to a natural rebellion against church-going parents in this conservative community.

"They dress in black, paint their fingernails black," says Wright. "But we don't have animal sacrifices or anything like that taking place. If it is a cult, it's in its infancy."

Students and school officials says Carneal could be found with the group at the mall and on school grounds, but he did not fully participate in its activities.

The son of John Carneal, a prominent lawyer in the area, the teen never abandoned his jeans and wire-rimmed glasses for a "gothic" look, and was vague about his own religious beliefs. While many of his friends claimed to be atheists and agnostic, Michael "didn't really talk much about himself that way. He was either quiet, or just being silly and making jokes," says sophomore Brian Wathan.

Carneal's troubles in school were minor. Once, Underwood says, officials caught him chipping mortar off of a school wall. And he was once reprimanded for getting on the Internet with a school computer. He was not disciplined for either infraction.

Strong is a popular athlete who rarely hides his principles. A running back with a soft voice and struggling goatee, he was virtually raised in Paducah's Assembly of God Church. His father, Robert Strong, is pastor.

Ben Strong took over leadership of the school's Bible study class last year, after the founding student graduated. His devotion to church, students say, never hurt his popularity.

"Part of it is because he plays football, but everyone likes him because he's easy going," says James West, 17, a junior. "He doesn't try to press his beliefs on you."

Nontheless, Strong always "left the door open" for Carneal to join the prayer group. He thought Carneal was "jittery, hyperactive," and that the prayer service could help his friend.

He still feels that way.

"I have to forgive him" Strong says. "I feel I was put there for a reason. I think God wanted me to be there that morning."

Although he did not take Carneal's warning seriously Friday, Strong began to grow more concerned over the weekend. He wasn't worried that Carneal would do something to others -- the freshman had never shown signs of violence. "I was more concerned he might do something to himself," Strong says. "I talked to his best friends and asked them if they knew what was going on. Nobody knew."

Warning not taken seriously

Strong wasn't the only one who knew something was brewing. School officials say they received reports that Carneal had phoned some of his closest friends, telling them to stay away from the Bible study class on Monday morning. None of them alerted administrators. "I was afraid that if I called adults, it would make him more upset and then something worse would happen," Strong says. "I was hoping he was just joking."

Another student who did not take the warning seriously was Nicole Hadley, a 14-year-old freshman and one of Carneal's closer friends. A popular basketball player, Nicole was at Monday morning's weekly session of songs and prayers.

It was during the final prayer, Strong says, that he heard the first shot. It crumpled Hadley to the floor. She later died.

Strong says he spun around and called out "Mike, what are you doing?" The two made brief eye contact. Then Carneal lifted the pistol, pointed to the left of Strong and continued firing. "He just let a bunch of them go," Strong says of the bullets.

As students screamed, Strong ran toward Carneal, stopping 10 feet in front of him.

`Ben told Mike to be calm, to stop shooting people," recalls Bond, who ran toward the lobby when he heard the shot. Bond says he saw Carneal lifting the gun toward him, then lay it down at Strong's urging. Bond scooped up the gun.

"I thought he had laid it down because he had run out of ammunition," Bond says, his voice beginning to crack with emotion. "Then I saw there was still a bullet in the chamber. That was meant for me, I know."

Hearing the commotion, board member Wright, who was on school grounds, rushed into the offices and inadvertently walked into the room where Carneal was being held. The teen sat there silently, his arms resting at the table. "He didn't look like anyone who could shoot eight people," Wright says. "He looked like a future valedictorian."

A community wounded

Word of the shootings reached some in the community before even paramedics arrived at the school.

Within three hours, the Paducah Red Cross was running on reserve blood supplies. Within six hours, its offices were overflowing with more than 100 residents donating blood.

Meanwhile, McCracken County sheriff's deputies questioned Carneal in the basement of City Hall. Sheriff Frank Augustus says that the teen apologized repeatedly, and broke down crying during questioning. Carneal is now being held in an undisclosed location, awaiting a hearing set for Wednesday.

The one unanswered question, Augustus says, is why.

"I'm not even sure he knows," says Augustus.

They are looking into whether Carneal may have been influenced by the bloody shooting at a Pearl, Miss., high school two months earlier. A 16-year-old distraught over the breakup with his girlfriend is accused of stabbing his mother to death, then driving to school and shooting his former girlfriend and another girl to death.

No one is more perplexed by Monday's rampage, though, than Strong. "He (Carneal) was, like, `I can't believe I'd do this,' " Strong says. "And he said, `Kill me now,' or something like that."

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