One With Ben

Bill O'Brien Photo UPDATED—The Branford green was packed with friends and strangers tonight paying tribute to 10-year-old Ben Callahan, who died after falling into the Branford River Friday and being sucked into a culvert. Speakers from all aspects of his life described his “peaceful warrior” nature, love of sports and music, and his devotion to his family and church. It was an experience that truly united the town and it drew to a close as the sun set. 

Mary Johnson Photo Amid a crowd of close to two thousand people, coaches and teachers and friends and family took to the stage to describe an extraordinary boy who touched the lives of many and was primed to be a leader.

Scout’s Eye-Witness Account

Bill O'Brien Photo His younger brother, Scout, 9, gave a stunning first-hand account of how he and his older brother Cooper tried to save Ben, and how they, too, struggled to stay alive. 

Scout told the audience that he and his brothers set out for a swim in the Branford River; they took their bikes to get there. It had been raining hard that morning and by the time the rain started to lift, at about 1 p.m., the river was high. When they arrived, they found a “huge whirlpool,” Scout said. Their mom told them they could go swimming, Scout said. 

And near the huge whirlpool “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 culvert runs underneath the roadway.

As for Ben, Scout said “he was getting so deep into the tube (the culvert)  that if I tried to get him I would just go into the tube again where I could not breathe. And, like, the tube was like a 30-foot one. And it was, like, I couldn’t come up for air.” (A culvert is a tunnel structure under roadways or railways.)

What the audience learned for the first time last night was that both Scout and Cooper almost didn’t make it.

All three kids found themselves in a turbulent river. Scout’s head was injured from hitting rocks. 

“I didn’t really care about being hurt. I just cared about getting back on top of the street and saving my two brothers.”

As Cooper “was screaming for help, I said, Cooper, grab onto my hand. I pulled him out.”

After Scout got out, “Cooper jumped on his bike and rode home to get my Mom. While we were leaving I saw the port-a-potty truck. I stopped the port-a-potty truck, and I said I think my brother’s dead. He is under the street. So the port-a-potty truck called 911.

“And so there were firefighters there and the divers and the Coast Guard. So I had to go to the doctor because of what happened to my head. And it was fine. They found Ben. They brought him to a hospital.” Scout took a deep breath. “He was dead.” He was silent for a minute. “I love my brother.”

Two of the Callahan brothers’ friends, Greg Kealey, 12, and Brody Fagan, 11, attended the event and shared what they heard about that day. They said Scout saved Cooper and tried to save Ben, but Ben was stuck in the tunnel, adding that Scout took a hard hit in there. Both boys said Scout was a hero.

Bill O'Brien Photo Everyone was one with Ben, especially the kids in the audience, who took Scout’s story hard.

“The Heart of Branford is Wounded”

Ian Christmann Photo First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove, who watched the attempted rescue near the Branford River Friday, told the audience, “The heart of Branford is wounded.” He observed, “Branford is a small town and when tragedy strikes a small town, it feels it deeply….this Green is so often the heart of our community. He told those assembled “tonight it holds our collective grief.” 

Bill O'Brien Photo The stage was surrounded by photographs of young Ben playing football, basketball, and lacrosse. Hundreds of children were everywhere, many from the teams Ben played on, wearing T-shirts with no. 2 in memory of their friend. Sports provided the strongest tie among the speakers and the audience. Ben excelled on the field. For most of the children on the green, this was their first brush with death.

Bill O'Brien Photo His parents, Dave and Paula, their children, and their close-knit family attended what was announced as a candlelight vigil, but what turned out to be a memorial service. At the end Dave Callahan spoke of Jesus and his impact on the family’s life. Ben, he said, was in heaven, “because he had a good relationship with Jesus.”

Pastor Steve Chamberlain of Branford Evangelical Free Church, which the family attends, said Ben’s death was “a punch in the gut to anyone who knew Ben Callahan.” Both Chamberlain and Dave Callahan spoke of the short but profound ten years of Ben’s life.

Doug Shaw, executive director of the Soundview YMCA, served as the emcee and said they were there tonight to celebrate, “That’s right, celebrate the life of Ben.” He told the audience it was okay to laugh and it was okay to cry. 

The Little Warrior

Bill O'Brien Photo Scott Holmes, vice president of Branford Youth Football, said, “He loved to cook, and boy, could he eat. That line drew laughter from the kids. “There was nothing Ben could not do. He was a fearless leader and truly a little warrior. The younger kids looked up to him. The three Callahan boys were always together. They were known as 1, 2, and 3.”

Bill O'Brien Photo Here is Scout in the center of this group.

Eric Fiengo, president of Branford Youth Football, announced that Ben’s # 2 would now be retired at the end of 2017, which prompted applause from the audience.

Branford High School Lacrosse Coach Jim May described the Ben he knew, a kid of enormous talent and commitment. He described how Ben tried to change him as well. “It was so unfair that Ben was taken from us at such a young age,” he said. ” I don’t get it.” 

Ben the Bass Player

Leslie Stewart, Ben’s third grade teacher at the John B. Sliney Elementary School, described Ben’s huge grin and love of life. “Ben’s nickname is warrior. He was a peaceful warrior, fearless and strong.”

Ben was also a budding musician, who started on guitar but fell in love with the bass. His teacher, Paul Battles, shared a last lesson with Ben on Thursday, the day before he died. They went over a list of songs and Ben surprised Battles with a Rolling Stones song he had mastered. “He was a one-of-a-kind kid,” Battles said to an audience filled with tears. “There will be a big hole on Thursday afternoons… Fare thee well.”

Branford High alumni singers, conducted by retired conductor Cathyann Roding, took to the stage and sang “Rock My Soul” and the always-touching “Amazing Grace.”

The outpouring of grief has prompted on-line support for the family. Go Fund Me campaigns have generated an outpouring of funds for the family.

Bill O'Brien Photo The final speaker was Ben’s dad, Dave, who spoke of his family’s relationship with Jesus. “Ben’s in heaven,” he said. “He was given a 10-year project… 10 years, 6 months, and 14 days. I love him, but God loves him more.”

At the end of his comments, Dave Callahan encouraged everyone to just hug one another. “I’ll be here all night for anyone who wants a hug,” he said. Hug someone you don’t know, he suggested.

Indeed, the audience took his request to heart with strangers hugging strangers as they slowly streamed away from the green. There wasn’t a soul who wasn’t touched by the experience.

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