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Loved Ones Mourn UNCC Student Killed While Fighting Gunman

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

On Sunday, memorial services will be held for one of the victims of Tuesday's shooting at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Riley Howell is being hailed as a hero after police say he tackled the gunman, saving untold lives. But his loss is now being felt in the small North Carolina town where he grew up. Blue Ridge Public Radio's Cory Vaillancourt has the story.

CORY VAILLANCOURT, BYLINE: The shooting at UNC Charlotte injured four and left two dead. When their names were announced the next day, the tragedy hit home 150 miles away in a rugged corner of rural Appalachia, where locals are having a hard time making sense of the senseless, but not of the heroism of native son Riley Howell.

LOGAN KING: He exhibited all the attributes that a hero should.

VAILLANCOURT: That's Riley Howell's best friend, 20-year-old Logan King.

KING: He didn't question it. He didn't hesitate. He instantly ran at someone who was trying to hurt other people, and he attempted his best to stop the person to save lives without even considering his own.

VAILLANCOURT: Howell and King grew up backpacking, hiking, snowboarding and playing football together in Waynesville, a tight-knit town of 10,000 nestled in North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains, west of Asheville.

KING: I think I was about 4 years old, and we were in the same Sunday school class. I thought he looked really cool because he was kind of dressed like a cowboy, and he was wearing a snakeskin leather belt that I thought was really neat. And from there, it was lifelong friends.

VAILLANCOURT: No one thought that lifelong would be so short. But when it became known that Riley Howell ran towards the gunfire and tackled the gunman, no one - his church group leader, his soccer coach, his best friend - thought what Howell did was the least bit surprising.

KING: I would say he's a free spirit. You couldn't hold him down. You had to let him go, and you had to let him - you had to let him lead. And you had to let him go the path that he was going to go.

VAILLANCOURT: Riley Howell's path was winding but never wavered. His parents instilled in their son the strong moral code that earned him a reputation as a leader mature for his age. His seventh-grade teacher, Susanna Shetley, remembers Howell wanting to work with disabled schoolkids.

SUSANNA SHETLEY: They could choose to do, you know, folk art, or PE, or chorus or whatever, and he chose to be a peer helper in that developmental delayed class.

VAILLANCOURT: Howell tried to join the Asheville Fire Department but was rejected for being too young. He also thought about the military. But at the time of the shooting, he was finishing up the last day of his junior year at UNCC, and he eventually hoped to work as a forest ranger or a game warden. His body was brought from Charlotte Thursday by a motorcade that included police, fire and military escort. Crowds waving American flags lined main street in Waynesville to welcome him home.

KING: He would probably think it was kind of neat to have all the firetrucks and police and everything driving around. But I think he would, ultimately, not want to be praised the way he is. He wanted to remain humble, I think.

VAILLANCOURT: As this tiny community now begins to heal, a shrine to Howell is already taking shape near where a memorial service will be held in his honor this Sunday. For NPR News, I'm Cory Vaillancourt in Waynesville, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.