Thousands united on the Branford Green on Sunday, July 9 to celebrate the life of Ben Callahan, the 10 year-old boy who perished in the Branford River on Friday, July 7 while swimming with his two brothers.
Speakers, including his father, his teachers, coaches, clergy, first responders, and town officials, shared stories both joyful and tearful about the boy whose talented, determined, and joyous approach to life led to his description as a "peaceful little warrior."
Doug Shaw, a family friend and executive director of the Soundview YMCA, told the thousands who gathered that it was OK to cry and that it was OK to laugh.
"Kids, it's OK to laugh tonight. We will grieve. We will cry together. It is OK to cry as we are here to support this wonderful family to support this great community we all live in," Shaw said at the vigil.
Ben's father, Dave Callahan, said this morning (July 10) that the family is grieving, and is grateful and overwhelmed by the support being shown. A fundraising page online, www.gofundme.com/ben-callahan-memorial-fund, set up by a family friend with a goal of $5,000, had already raised more than $23,000 by thisafternoon. The family is considering ways to put that to good use.
"We tend to give everything away," he says. "If we get a big Christmas gift, we try to give it away. We are looking at all of this money coming in, and we are grateful, but we don't want this for ourselves. But this is other people's way of grieving, so we are grateful for that and we are asking, 'What can we do with this?'"
He said the family was meeting with somebody to set up a non-profit organization that would help them put the money to good use.
"We're looking into how we set up a scholarship, a scholarship for somebody that embodies Ben's heart," he said.
Two of Ben's friends, Eric and Jeter, who spoke at the memorial service Sunday said Ben's heart was big. They said he was like a brother to them and that he was big on giving hugs. At first, they weren't used to receiving hugs, "Ben style," because "they were kind of shy," they told the crowd, sometimes speaking in unison from remarks they had prepared.
"The more uncomfortable we were, the harder Ben hugged us," they said. People in the crowd laughed. "Ben would just not give up. After a while we just accepted it. Two things we learned from Ben, never give up, and always hug your friends."
They then asked the crowd, in memory of Ben, "to give someone a hug right now." To laughter and smiles of delight, people in the audience of thousands turned to one another and gave hugs to the person next to them.
Dave misses his son terribly. People told them Ben was his "mini me" who looked like him, and talked like him, and that they even liked the same flavor of ice cream.
He recounted a recent Sunday when the family went into New Haven, attending chuirch services that they'd helped set up. He and Ben then headed over to MPWR Fitness, Dave's CrossFit gym, and set up some rowing machines on the sidewalk. They rowed and talked about life. Dave said, still talking the present tense about his son, that he was strong and that, at 100 pounds, he could deadlift 180 pounds, and link 20 pulls-ups together-and Ben was smart, wanting to talk about everything.
"I'm writing down the things I'm going to miss about him. He could talk about World War II, nuclear weapons, superheroes, and unicorns. He would ask, 'Are there bad unicorns, too? There should be evil unicorns,'" Dave said. "We would talk about CrossFit stuff and the NBA. Just the range of conversations he could have with anybody was amazing. Intelligent discussions with a smile on his face."
The three brothers, Ben, Cooper, and Scout, were inseparable, he said. That same Sunday the three boys asked if they could go to Shake Shake, a real treat, since the family only eats healthy at home. Dave said sure, and gave them $20. They still had money left over after Shake Shake, so they headed over to Dunkin' Donuts. They were so polite that the woman behind the counter gave the three boys a discount on the donuts.
"There they are, these three moppy-headed boys and they are just so polite and nice," Dave said.
Creating a New Normal
Dave said after he and his wife were told Ben was missing in the Branford River Friday afternoon, they realized at one point that it wasn't going well and it was taking too long for the outcome to be good.
They went outside to talk and try to figure out they would move forward and create a "new normal" without their beloved Ben, who was a good student, a musician, and an athlete who fought hard on the field and still made friends with those he played against. Among those attending the vigil in his honor Sunday night were teams from North Haven, Guilford, and numerous other teams from across Connecticut who had played against Ben's teams.
Dave said the family plans to make sense of this, get through their ordeal, and focus on loving their two children, whom they consider to be heroes for trying to save their brother Friday, by relying upon Jesus Christ and their faith in him.
"When we are at our weakest, that is when we rely upon him to be strong," he said.
He said that he hopes people understand, and are not put off by, his family's emphasis on its faith.
"We just want the world to love Christ and to know that to follow Jesus you don't have to be weird," he said. "I know that for some people that won't make sense. And it doesn't start with the church stuff or the religion part of it. It starts with the relationship you have with Christ. If it's a real and vibrant relationship, it starts to become real."
He said he was trying hard to let people understand that, because that is the only way to understand how his family is making it through right now. To understand their faith is to understand what appears to be their strength in crisis.
"We are just totally leaning and letting Jesus be strong," he said.
His son Scout, 9, the youngest, has already taken the opportunity to talk with reporters about information he was concerned was being misrepresented, and to tell the crowd of thousands at the vigil Sunday night his version of what happened, standing on the stage, holding the microphone, and telling his story. Dave said Scout is "shaken for sure," but that also "he's a firecracker and he's just got this consciousness that he's a child of the King. He's shaken, but he'll be alright."
Dave said Scout, Ben, and Cooper often played in the roadway when it was flooded, including following major storms like hurricanes.
"We have pictures of them riding in the water coming up to their waist, they were maybe four or five or six at the time...riding in and out of the same spot, around the corner from where we live. They've been playing there for years. People say it's randomness. But they've done stuff way dumber than that."
Dave said he just has to believe that God is in control of this one, and to have faith whatever the outcome.
"The whims and whirlpools of life are not going to catch God by surprise," he said.
He said one of Ben's favorite passages from the bible was Romans 8:35-39:
"Can anything ever separate us from Christ's love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? ... Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God's love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord."
'We Were All In'
Ben's brother Scout, 9, says he and his brothers Cooper and Ben, after asking their mother for permission to go swimming in the Branford River Friday, headed down to the river hoping to ride their bikes through the roadway nearby, which sometimes floods after rainstorms.
"We wanted to ride our bikes through the flood, because it's usually flooded a lot," he said Sunday during the vigil, holding the microphone and speaking on stage to the thousands who had gathered.
"So there was no flood, but it was like really high. So I got in and there was like a huge whirlpool and there was like a tube that goes under the street, and we had no clue it was there because we didn't look or anything. So I got in and I was swimming around and I went under."
The tube was a culvert running underneath the roadway that drains the marsh into the river.
Then, Scout said, he remembers seeing his brother Ben in the middle of the river, "and that was where the whirlpool was and he was all of the sudden getting sucked and then quickly I was getting sucked, too" toward the culvert.
They screamed to their brother Cooper for help, and "he got pulled in and so we were all in, and and so no one could like save us," Scout said.
He said he remember being under water, holding onto a rock, and that he finally had to let go because he couldn't breathe.
"I had to quickly let go because it was like so hard," he said.
He said he was getting hit by a lot of rocks, but that he didn't care because all he could think about was getting back up on the street and helping his brothers.
He said he remembered finally somehow getting back up on the street, helping Cooper out, but that Ben was sucked so far under that they could not help him out without getting sucked back in themselves.
"And Cooper jumped on his bike and rode home to get my mom," he said.
Scout then saw a truck coming down the street, and jumped in front of it and he said he told the driver that he thought his brother was dead and that he was under the street. He said the truck driver called 911.
Police recovered Ben's body late Friday afternoon. The call came in around 1 p.m. and that the body was recovered at around 4 p.m. Friday afternoon.
A Warning About Tidal Waterways
Branford Police Captain Geoffrey Morgan said July 7 during a press conference that it was a matter of three boys just enjoying playing on the river on a summer day.
"It's a great summer day, they are from the neighborhood. And I can say this, I grew up on the river. When you're a young boy, it's part of your livelihood, the Branford River," Morgan said.
The area where the incident occurred is a popular clamming area for adults and children alike, and easily accessible. Both Morgan and Branford Fire Department Chief Thomas Mahoney characterized the incident Friday as a tragic accident.
They also warned others to be vigilant about tidal waterways, particularly after heavy rainfall.
"Generally speaking...currents can be very swift around weather events, particularly where you have large bodies of water moving into a pipe. The water moves very fast. This is just a place that people should stay away from," Mahoney said.
He said the area where the accident occurred was not an isolated area.
"These culverts where the tide goes from a wide area like a river into a marshy area, where the bridges go over them, there are lots of them located all over the state of Connecticut, and any coastal area where tidal water moves," he said. "And they are very dangerous. And it's essential that people just stay away from those areas. This is not the first time I've been involved with situations like this, and in those other situations, people have gone all the way through and come out the other side OK. But, unfortunately, not today. So it's really important to stay away from those areas."
Water Moving Quickly
Rescuers said the water was moving very quickly through the 48-inch culvert. The water around the culvert was cloudy and dirty, and there was still plenty of outgoing current while searchers were trying to find the boy, complicating the search.
Branford police officers were the first to respond to the scene, and they dove into the water with their uniforms still on while waiting for reinforcements to show up. Mahoney said members of the Branford Fire Department rescue team were in the river within minutes upon arriving at the scene and assessing the situation.
"From our experience, we find that we generally find someone within the area where it occurred, so we focused on that area, but we certainly covered our bases throughout the river system here, just in case the wind and the tide had other ideas," Mahoney said at the press conference.
"Our hearts go out to this family. Everybody did a great job," he said, his voice dropping.
Mahoney praised the members of the Branford rescue team, along with those who responded from East Haven and Guilford Police and Fire departments. Members of the New Haven Fire and Police departments were en route when the body was discovered. Mahoney said "our partners from Guilford.. were the ones who located the young man.
"We had a lot of assets and technology. Unfortunately because of the terrain and mucky conditions, it was very difficult to find him. We were thankful we were able to do so," he said.
Police said members of the family were actively involved with the rescue effort. In addition to help from fire and police officers from surrounding towns, rescuers also had some volunteer help, including a drone from a private citizen.
"The brothers were intimately involved with trying to rescue him," Morgan said. "This is a family, our hearts go out to them. Our hearts go out to the little boys. Our hearts go out to the firemen."
Mahoney also thanked the "good Samaritans" who helped by searching river banks and the rest of the river.
"We can't thank them enough," he said. "Branford is a very tight knit community."
Terrible Loss for Community
The Branford Police Department reached out to the U.S. Coast Guard for help and possible helicopter support, but the Coast Guard was tied up dealing with other medical emergencies at the time of the request. Morgan said earlier in the day that Connecticut State Police were unable to fly due to the weather. He said the rescue team used the privately owned drone to check the area, including the reeds around the waterway. In addition, members of the rescue team extended the ladders of the fire trucks to improve their ability to survey the area.
Police officials again warned residents and others to be careful around bodies of water, particularly after heavy rains and as the tide is going out.
"We'd like to remind everyone that, although this was a tragic accident, please, please when waterways swell around rainstorms, it becomes important for our children not to get into these areas that flood rather quickly," Morgan said. "I guess there's not much else I can say about that. This is a terrible loss for our community."
Branford Public Schools is offering information on grief counselors at it website www.branfordschools.org.
Kelley Fryer contributed to this story.