FORT RUCKER, Ala. – As bandaged, bruised teenagers wiped at tears, Michael Bowen was remembered for his upbeat, sturdy character and faith during the memorial service for 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 Monday as more than 750 people packed a chapel at Fort Rucker, the Army's helicopter flight training base that borders Enterprise in southeast Alabama. Other funeral services were planned 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's attempt to save Katie Strunk, a classmate. They said he was found with his arms around her in the hallway.
"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."
"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," said Blake Enfinger, who sang at the service and knew Bowen from Our Lady of Loretto Parish on base.
Besides 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.
Services also were held for Strunk and Michelle Wilson on Monday. More than 300 mourners gathered for Wilson's service. Many students, bent over in tears during the funeral, were comforted by parents. Others sat together, holding hands.
College Avenue Church of Christ youth minister Brendan Chance remembered Strunk as fun-loving, caring and kind.
"How can a 16-year-old affect so many lives," asked the Rev. Keith Ellis, looking out at 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.
Five of the eight students who died have ties to Fort Rucker, where their parents either serve in military assignments or work as contractors. Bowen's stepfather, who is stationed at the base, has served in Iraq and is scheduled to be deployed there again, according to Bowen's classmates.
Among those scheduled for funeral services Tuesday is 17-year-old Michael D. "Mikey" Tompkins, a student whose father is serving in Iraq and returned home for the burial.
Also Tuesday, a joint funeral was planned for two best friends who died together in the hallway, Andrew Joel "A.J." Jackson, 16, and Ryan Andrew Mohler, 17.
The school was closed for the remainder of the week as plans are made on where classes can be held.