MENOMINEE, Mich. - Hundreds of people attended a memorial yesterday to a 15-year-old Wisconsin boy who held his social studies class hostage before shooting himself last week, setting aside the terrifying standoff to honor him as a quiet, helpful leader who loved the outdoors.
Sam Hengel's family held the gathering in a school auditorium in Menominee, Mich., because they expected so many supporters. Menominee lies just across the Menominee River from Marinette, Wis., where Hengel held 26 classmates and his teacher at gunpoint for nearly six hours.
Why Hengel took his class hostage remains a mystery. Other students and his teacher have said he was well-liked and had many friends.
The standoff last Monday at Marinette High School began when Hengel returned to his sixth-hour Western Civilization class from a bathroom break. He had two semi-automatic pistols and a backpack jammed with more than 200 rounds of ammunition and a pair of knives.
Students and police said he immediately fired three shots, blasting a hole in a wall and tearing apart a film projector. Students talked to him about everything from hunting and fishing to his favorite movies in an attempt to keep him calm. He eventually let all the hostages go.
A SWAT team stormed the room after Hengel fired three shots about 8 p.m., destroying the classroom phone and hitting a computer. Hengel shot himself as officers reached him. He died the next morning.
Flurries fell under an overcast sky yesterday afternoon, adding to a feeling of gloom. The line to greet the teen's parents and two younger brothers stretched out of the auditorium and into the lobby, where mourners gazed at collages of photos depicting Hengel as a small child, holding a string of fish and paddling along on a canoe trip with his family.
Hengel's family stood in front of the auditorium's stage and hugged one well-wisher after another for more than two hours. They had set up a tent, a canoe and paddle and a mock campfire on the stage. They hung up Hengel's Boy Scout and karate uniforms and his replica Green Bay Packers jersey with linebacker A.J. Hawk's No. 50 on the front next to the stage.
The Rev. Nicholas Johannes told the crowd he wondered why Hengel did it as he held the boy's hand in the hospital, but said he'll never know. Hengel was a good person and God would not judge him on one act, Johannes promised.
"This is not about Sam's sin. This is about the world's sin. Something has gone terribly wrong," he said. "We need to say 'I love you' and mean the words," Johannes said.
"Sam was my best friend," said Keith Schroeder, Hengel's scoutmaster. "We don't know for sure what went on in Sam's mind, but we know he chose a permanent solution to a temporary problem . . . his emotional bucket was empty. We didn't see his bucket was empty and I don't think Sam did, either."
Jon Hengel told the crowd his son was a quiet leader who was "always ready to go."
"Someday when we meet again you can tell me what happened. You are one of the great ones," he said. "You and your brothers are the North Star in my life. . . . I love you, Sam."