Alabama Town Confronts Loss Of 8 High School Students To Tornado

Wednesday, March 7th 2007, 8:39 am
By: News On 6

ENTERPRISE, Ala. (AP) _ The military community here has grown accustomed to burying its soldiers, but the funerals this week are taking an especially heavy toll.

Five of eight high students killed when a tornado tore through Enterprise High School late last week had family ties to Fort Rucker, the Army's helicopter flight training base. A memorial service was planned there Wednesday to remember them, and counselors and chaplains opened their doors to help their grieving families.

Chief Warrant Officer Bill Tompkins was serving in Iraq when he got the call to come home and bury his 17-year-old son.

``You never think that anything like this is going to happen to your kids, so you have that feeling of: 'My family's safe, they're not in a war zone like I am, so they should be fine,''' said Ricky Davis, who served with Tompkins in Desert Storm and is now stationed at Fort Benning, Ga.

``You just never dream that anything like this could happen,'' Davis said.

Many of the mourners who filled Open Door Baptist Church for Michael Tompkins' funeral Tuesday wore Army green. His navy blue casket was topped with mementos from his school baseball team, including his glove, a baseball, his No. 19 jersey and a baseball cap.

``We know where he is,'' his father told the more than 750 people who gathered. ``He's dancing before Jesus, you all know he is.''

Fort Rucker is home to about 6,000 service personnel and trains about 1,150 helicopter pilots each year. Several of its helicopters recently went down in Iraq and Afghanistan, killing crew members.

Death ``is a known risk that soldiers take when going into combat zones, and we prepare for that,'' Fort Rucker spokeswoman Lisa Eichhorn said. ``When the shoe's on the other foot, it cuts us very deep as a community.''

Three other students killed in the tornado were buried Monday, and a joint service was held Tuesday for best friends Andrew Joel Jackson, 16, and Ryan Andrew Mohler, 17, who died together in the hallway in an avalanche of bricks and concrete as a wall and the roof collapsed.

Funerals for the other two students were to be held later this week.

Melanie Bowden, whose husband is the post chaplain at Fort Rucker, said Enterprise High students living on the base have met at her home to talk about the tragedy. She said programs are being arranged to help the young people get their minds off the deaths of their friends.

``It's always unnatural when a child dies,'' she said following a funeral service for 16-year-old Michael Bowen, whose father recently served in Iraq. ``They're not supposed to go before their parents do.''