America has suffered another tragic outbreak of gun violence, this time at a “Sweet 16” birthday party in Dadeville, Alabama, in which four people were killed and a further 28 injured.
According to local police, the shooting began at around 10.34pm on Saturday (15 April) during a celebration held at the Mahogany Masterpiece Dance Studio in downtown Dadeville, a small town of around 3,000 residents lying 45 miles north east of Montgomery.
Nearly 48 hours on, no arrests have been made and authorities declined to speculate on the suspect or their possible motivation but said there was no further active threat to the community.
Speaking at a press conference on Sunday, Sergeant Jeremy Burkett said: “There were four lives tragically lost in this incident, and there’s been a multitude of injuries.
“Please understand this is also a very fluid situation. We have been getting continuous updates throughout the day and we are absolutely trying to confirm and understand everyone that was in the venue there.”
Inviting anyone with information to come forward, Sergeant Burkett said: “I cannot stress this enough, we absolutely need you to share it.”
The four victims were identified by the Tallapoosa County Coroner’s Office as Philstavious “Phil” Dowdell, 18, Mersiah Collins, 19, Corbin Holston, 23, and KeKe Nicole Smith, 17.
Dowdell, reportedly the elder brother of the girl being celebrated at the party, was well known as a high school football star who was about to graduate and had earned a scholarship to play for Jacksonville State University at college level.
He has been described as a “hometown hero” by Keenan Cooper, who was DJing at the party when the violence began.
Reacting in disbelief to his killing, Dadeville High School coach Michael Taylor, who had taught Dowdell since he was nine years old, said: “Anything he put his hand on, he was blessed.”
Mr Taylor recalled a recent conversation with the athlete in which the teen told him: “If anything ever happened to me, even when I go to college, take care of my two sisters.”
“It can’t be true… it just can’t be true,” he said.
Jacksonville State head coach Rich Rodriguez said in a statement on Sunday: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of Philstavious Dowdell and the other victims of the senseless tragedy last night. He was a great young man with a bright future.”
Dowdell’s grandmother, Annette Allen, told The Montgomery Advertiser: “He was a very, very humble child. Never messed with anybody. Always had a smile on his face.”
Smith, a high school senior at Dadeville, was both a volleyball player and track team manager, according to Mr Taylor.
Amy Jackson, her cousin, remembered Smith as a “ray of sun” in the darkness and said that the teen was planning to attend the University of Alabama in the fall.
“She was her mom’s firstborn, a good sister to her siblings, she had a younger brother and sister that she took good care of,” Ms Jackson told The Independent. She had a smile that was contagious. If she smiled at you, you were gonna smile back at her.”
The tragedy has hit every corner in the small city of just 3,200, Ms Jackson said. She has at least two other loved ones recovering in the hospital and her fiancé’s nephew Corbin Holston was also killed during the attack.
“It’s still fresh. It hasn’t sunk in that this is really happening. It’s a close-knitted community, people know everybody. ‘Your kids are our kids’ type of community,” Ms Jackson said. “And it’s just hard to believe that something like that, that we normally see on TV … is our reality.”
Holston, 23, did not attend the party but rushed to the scene after a family member texted him that there was “a serious concern.”
“Out of concern for other family members, Corbin responded to the party to ensure their safety but unfortunately encountered the suspects,’’ his mom Janett Heard told AL.com.
Holston, who graduated from Dadeville High School in 2018, pulled his relative to safety before he was fatally wounded.
“Corbin was selfless when it came to his family and friends and always tried to be a protector,” Ms Heard said. “That’s just the type of person he was.”
Of the wounded, 15 are understood to be teenagers, six of whom have since been discharged from hospital after receiving treatment.
Of the remaining nine, four are said to be in stable condition and five are critical.
“What we’ve dealt with is something that no community should have to endure,” police chief Jonathan Floyd said at Sunday’s press conference.
“I also ask each of you please do not let this moment define what you think about the city of Dadeville and our fine people.”
Ahead of a prayer vigil at Dadeville’s First Baptist Church, Ben Hayes, the high school football team’s chaplain, told CNN: “It’s a very close, tight-knit community Everybody knows everybody. That’s why this is so difficult, it’s because this, it’s affecting everybody in the community.”
He added: “I knew these kids personally. Most people did. “There was a lot of sadness, a lot of concern on faces.
“I think at this point it’s shock. I think probably the anger will come. I think it’s a matter of time to see how people respond to this. But right now, things are quiet, and we’re just praying that it stays that way.”
Martin Collins identified his son Marsiah, 19, as one of the victims killed.
Marsiah graduated from Opelika High School in 2022 and was taking a gap year to focus on his music.
He was planning to move in with his father to Baton Rouge in the fall so he could attend Louisiana State University, AL.com reported.
“I don’t know what to say about this situation,” Mr Collins told AL.com “He messaged me on April 5 telling me he was ready to leave.”
Mr Collins said he found out about the devastating news on Sunday morning. He described Marsiah as a great big brother to his sisters.
The grieving father also addressed speculation online about his son.
“Everything I’ve done in my life was to show my son it can be done, and to give him a positive role model to follow,” Mr Collins told AL.com.
“There’s been some crap on Twitter trying to make my son look like a thug, because he was making a music video with a gun that wasn’t even real. They’re trying to make this narrative that he was a thug and was responsible for his own death. He didn’t know anything about no street life.”
Mourning the dead after his return from a four-day state visit to Ireland, US President Joe Biden said: “What has our nation come to when children cannot attend a birthday party without fear? When parents have to worry every time their kids walk out the door to school, to the movie theatre, or to the park?
“Guns are the leading killer of children in America, and the numbers are rising – not declining. This is outrageous and unacceptable.”
The incident comes after mass shootings at a Christian elementary school in suburban Nashville, Tennessee, and at a bank in Louisville, Kentucky, once more inspiring calls for America to introduce tighter gun control laws.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey also sent her condolences to the community.
“This morning, I grieve with the people of Dadeville and my fellow Alabamians,” she said in a tweet. “Violent crime has NO place in our state, and we are staying closely updated by law enforcement as details emerge.”
However, her sentiments were not entirely welcomed on social media, where Governor Ivey, a pro-gun Republican who last year signed legislation ending a concealed carry permit requirement, was criticised for her record on the issue and past support for the National Rifle Association.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, the US has now suffered 160 mass shootings in the first four months of 2023, amounting to more than one per day.