When the shooting began Thursday night in Knoxville, Tennessee, Zaevion Dobson faced a split-second choice: run away and save himself or use his body as a shield to protect those around him.
Nobody would’ve have blamed the 15-year-old Fulton High School football player for doing the former. But Dobson, survivors would later recall, sacrificed himself, jumping on top of three teenage girls who were sitting on a porch with a few other friends when two men approached and began shooting randomly into the group, according to the Associated Press.
“If it wasn’t for Zaevion, if he would have just ran off the porch, we would have probably been shot,” Kiara Rucker told CBS affiliate WVLT.
Dobson was killed by a bullet that struck him in the head, police said. He was the only person among the group who was hit.
“You’re my hero, I’ll never forget you,” Faith Gordon, who credited Dobson with saving her life, wrote on Twitter.
“Unfortunately, they picked a random group of young men and women who were just hanging out and trying to prepare to celebrate the holiday,” Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch, who earlier struggled to hold back tears discussing the teenager’s sacrifice at a news conference, told the AP.
Zach Dobson, the victim’s brother, told NBC-affiliate WBIR-TV that the shooting took those on the scene by surprise. By the time the group of young people realized that Dobson had been shot in the moments of confusion that followed, it was too late.
“He was laying there, and I just pick him up and put him in my arms,” his brother said. “He was dead. Unfortunately, he wasn’t lucky, but he saved two lives.”
“I pulled on him and said ‘You can get up now’ but he didn’t get up,” Gordon told WVLT. “So I just went upstairs, and by the time I came back to make sure everything was real, (I saw) he was shot in the head.”
A day later, Dobson, who described himself as “shocked,” was still trying to understand what motivated the shooters.
“Why would you shoot at random bystanders,” he told WBIR-TV. “For nothing. We were just sitting there chilling.”
Investigators are wondering the same thing. They believe the shooting was part of a series of gang-related shootings that began Thursday night when a 46-year-old woman was shot inside her apartment several miles away. The victim, 46-year-old Lisa Perry, is expected to survive, according to the AP.
In a an act of retribution gone awry, police say Perry’s son, – 23-year-old Brandon Perry – joined several other men, drove to Dobson’s neighborhood and went on a shooting spree. Police don’t believe there was a motive for shooting Dobson.
Perry was eventually shot as well, after crashing his car into an apartment, the AP reported. He died Friday.
Police arrested two other men who fled the scene of the crash, but released one of them.
The detained suspect – identified by authorities as 20-year-old Christopher Bassett – is charged with being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm and violation of probation, according to WBIR-TV. He is being held without bond, the station reported.
“These cowardly and senseless acts of violence must stop,” Rausch told the AP. “We should be preparing to celebrate the Christmas holiday, but now we have two men who are dead.”
At Fulton High in northern Knoxville, Dobson’s death led to an outpouring of grief among classmates of the sophomore. Online, he was celebrated for his final act of heroism. On Friday, counselors were at the high school to speak with grieving students, and a moment of silence was held in the gym, according to the AP.
“He was really one of our success stories,” Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero told the AP. “Involved in sports, a mentee of one of our organizations in town. But still he falls victim to this.”
Rob Black, the coach of the Fulton football team, described his player as a “fine, fine young man.”
“Only a sophomore, but a very contagious young man who was very liked by his peers and his teachers,” Black told the AP. “Going to be a tough time as we leave from here and go meet with our football players.”
Friends and family – as well as countless strangers who were drawn to Dobson’s story – turned to social media to celebrate Dobson’s life.
Zach Dobson described Zaevion Dobson as an “awesome kid” and “awesome brother.”
“Just know that I miss him,” Dobson said. “I miss my brother.”