Saturday evening started out as a normal shift with Tallapoosa EMS for Alicia Morgan and her son Walker Kelley. But the two couldn’t have imagined what would happen and how many lives in the small town of Dadeville would be changed forever, including their own.

“I have cried a lot,” Morgan told 1819 News. “I look like I’ve been hit by a bus.”

Morgan is a paramedic and has been in the business for 32 years. Just after 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 15, she heard the call to the Mahogany Masterpiece Dance Studio and knew immediately the situation was dire.

“It was the officer on the scene asking for assistance,” Morgan remembered. “And giving a body count and a count of how many people were shot. I immediately started asking for additional resources. All the helicopters, all of the ambulances you can get me.”

It was referred to as a mass casualty event, meaning multiple people were injured. It all happened at a "Sweet 16" birthday party, making matters even more confusing and tragic for those responding. Morgan had just returned from another call and was at the emergency room less than two miles away at Lake Martin Community Hospital. She left immediately and headed to the scene.

Kelley was at the station and also heard the call. After working on an ambulance for four years, the 23-year-old newly-licensed EMT was ready to move.

Once on the scene, Morgan and Kelley, and their partners ignored regular protocol. Typically, EMS services have to stage away from a shooting scene until they are given an all-clear. But the situation was so intense, and all hands were on deck despite the risk.

“We didn’t just sit on the side of the road somewhere waiting to be told our scene is 100% safe,” said Kelley. “We had no idea if there was a shooter. There was so much radio traffic from everybody trying to get help that we just went on.”

“I should’ve made both of my trucks go to staging,” Morgan added. “But I made the choice to risk it and go in there and try to help as many as quickly as we could.”

For a brief moment, Morgan said she was emotionally overwhelmed by what she saw.

“I came out of the truck and did a quick look at the scene and oh my God, there was so many people there,” Morgan said. “ … The magnitude was, I would say almost too much to comprehend. I’m going to tell you that probably for about 20 seconds I felt totally helpless myself. That is the best way I know to describe it. I just stood there and scanned for everything. But once I got into that room with all of those babies, I did what I had to do. The room was relatively quiet other than me and a police officer communicating.”

Dadeville Alabama News
Investigators work at the site of a fatal shooting in downtown Dadeville, Ala., on Sunday, April 16, 2023. Several were killed during a shooting at a birthday party Saturday night, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency said. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy)

While Morgan went inside and established a Medical Incident Command, Kelley began to help the less critical patients. In a mass casualty event, victims are sorted with green, yellow and red tags, with green tags on those with the least life-threatening injuries and red being critical.

"It was hard," Morgan said with tears. "It was hard because every baby that I looked at was a baby. They're babies. I have never felt so defeated in all my life."

Kelley had green and yellow tags, and Morgan had red.

"All of my patients, when I went into the room were on the floor, unable to get up on their own at all," Morgan explained. "So, by our training, we're only supposed to take care of one critical at a time. But I was in a room with all of these criticals, and I had to take care of all of them to the best of my ability to keep them alive until they had transport."

While they worked to help patients, Kelley said he was trying to pass out supplies to those who could help themselves. He gave gauze to many patients and told them to hold pressure on their wounds. Some hysterical victims were running up to him, begging him for help. In the meantime, he noticed some of them were already helping each other.

"A lot of the patients that were not critical and could walk, I asked them to sit behind me and wait for the ambulance," he said. "But these kids took it upon themselves to start grabbing each other and helping each other. Some of them helped get others inside of cars instead of waiting for an ambulance, which is one thing that helped with transporting because if not, we would've still been on the scene two to three hours later still waiting on trucks."

One by one, Kelley methodically tended to patients. He said telling himself "one more patient" each time helped him get through.

While waiting for more transport to arrive, Morgan said she could hear the sound of grief outside. The parents who realized they may never see their children again was a sound far too familiar for Morgan.

"Outside was terrible," she said. "It was chaotic. People screaming. I could hear the wails out of parents, and I knew that the ones wailing were the ones that couldn't find their kid because their kid was more than likely inside."

After losing her own son in 2016, Morgan said the sound of grief on the scene was deafening.

"I have been that parent. I have been that parent, and you just lose it all. I know what those wails and those screams mean, you know? I am going to be honest, I can't get those sounds out of my head."

Help began to arrive, and one after the other, outside agencies lent hands. Miraculously, it only took 34 minutes from when EMS received the call until every patient had been transported from the dance studio. But the night wasn't over. Kelley stayed in the emergency room for nearly five hours, helping triage patients. They had to bring every bed in the hospital to the ER, and Kelley said that still wasn't enough. Kelley then helped his mother find clean clothes, and at the end of the night, they were the last two to transport the last patient out of the hospital.

So, we were the first in and the very last out. But to be honest, it was a lot, but I wouldn't have wanted it to be anyone else going through it. This is the call that either makes you or breaks you. This is a defining moment in EMS."

Four people died that night, and at least 32 were injured. Now first responders are left coping with what they experienced.

"It's a lot," said Morgan. "I am having anxiety, and I am feeling some kind of way even being in town I don't even want to be in public or be seen. I just want to be a ghost."

She hasn't been able to sleep much, and after the shooting, she returned to work at her second job in Lafayette.

The Alabama Fire College has already met with the first responders and has offered help. The local hospital brought in counselors, and Morgan hopes to see a counselor early next week. But for her and others, the event will be a pivotal moment in their careers.

"There are several of us first responders that are now contemplating our careers," Morgan added, "… After 32 years, after all I have been through, I am questioning if I want to do this anymore. It has just hit me. It's really broke my heart."

Morgan said she is thankful for the management at Tallapoosa EMS and at the city of Lafayette for making arrangements for her after the traumatic experience.

Although first responders are taught how to deal with mass casualty events, Morgan and Kelley said it is different to experience one, especially in rural Alabama.

"Nothing I've ever trained with prepared me for what that scene was," Morgan said. "We've trained on mock school shootings, bus wrecks, you know? We've done this for years, but it's a whole different thing when it's real life … None of my schooling or my drills I've done even remotely began to prepare for what that night had."

Especially in rural Alabama, Kelley said, a mass casualty event is not expected. He said there wasn't much time to mentally prepare for what he was about to see.

"In this situation, we were a mile and a half away," he said. "It was, 'we got a call, we're on the scene." I mean, I've worked shootings before, and I've been on multiple calls but nothing to a mass casualty standard … But nothing to where everybody's yelling, everybody's screaming, everybody's shot. I mean, I was doing the best I could, but I only had two hands."

Through it all, this mother-and-son duo has a special bond and an unusual situation. They can talk about what happened to each other.

"We're a duo because a lot of times you don't hear of someone having their kid on an ambulance with them," Kelley said.

Morgan already spends much of her time raising awareness about mental health and trying to help those in need. Since losing her own child to suicide nearly seven years ago, she has a special place in her heart for those dealing with any type of mental health crisis. She hopes that she will be able to help others after healing her own mind and spirit.

"Through this, it gives me more of a tool to be an even better mental health advocate," Morgan said. "I want to raise more awareness because it doesn't take but 20 or 30 seconds for numerous lives to be lost or changed … It may be days or weeks or even months, but eventually this call is going to haunt those who responded to it. These people will suffer from PTSD and PTSD is real."

Like mother, like son, Kelley also wants to take a very negative experience from his young career and turn it into a positive one.

"I think the best way to use it in the future is to educate others," Kelley said. "Because not everybody at Tallapoosa could come in and help. They weren't all there. We are taught about mass casualties, but you don't think you are ever going to use it in rural EMS … But we could definitely use this for educational purposes for new students to help them prepare because you never know. It could happen again."

Anyone seeking help with mental health, substance abuse and suicide crisis can call 988 to be connected with a crisis counselor.

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