Interview with Deaf uncle of UNCC hero Riley Howell

Riley Howell, the 21-year old student hero who died after tackling the UNCC shooter last week, had a Deaf uncle, Matt-Sale Howell-Davis. Here is an interview with him and his wife, Ann.

Matt-Sale: I’m Uncle Matt and she’s Aunt Ann.

Really, what happened was I arrived home on a Tuesday night, I saw the news that there was a shooting at UNC-Charlotte. That’s tragic, but like I said, it’s more commonplace nowadays. I sent a text message to Riley to make sure he was alright. They said there were only two students injured. I thought it was probably not the same time because I just talked to him on Monday night. Then…I kept texting him and still heard nothing from him. But at the same time, the news said the students were undergoing a lockdown. That means everyone probably left immediately and Riley probably just left his phone there. I kept texting him and still heard nothing from him.

As the night went on, I still heard nothing. I started thinking he probably wasn’t involved because I heard nothing. I’d expect for them to contact family immediately.

Ann: Plus there’s 26,500 students enrolled there. You wouldn’t think it would happen to…you.

Matt: We stayed up all night and still nothing. Then finally, at 5am, I got up for work and got a message asking me to call them. I called them and they told me he died.

I was in shock. I thought that was impossible. It’s not true.

No…no, it’s not true. I was thinking, “No, no, it can’t be.”

I thought the news was wrong. There must be a misunderstanding.

At that time when it was confirmed, I dropped everything and took off to my hometown, Waynesville, where my brother was.

I went as fast as I could.

While I was driving, we looked at each other and said if this happened in the same classroom then we already knew the story.

We didn’t have to ask what happened because we knew that Riley was the kind of person who would run towards the shooter. It was obvious.

Ann: There’s no question.

We looked at each other hoping he wasn’t in that classroom. We thought maybe it was a mistake. When we arrived, we found out he was actually in that classroom. We looked at each other and we just knew. Nobody had to tell us anything.

We just knew in advance it was true. At the time, I was learning more facts and found out that there were 60 students in that classroom. It was a big class in the Kennedy building.

All the students in that classroom, I’m not going into the exact details, but basically all the students dropped everything and ran out while just one student ran after and tackled the shooter. We don’t know how many lives he could have saved because after the investigation, they found a bag with more ammunition in there. We knew he may have just prevented a lot more deaths.

Alex: Matt-Sale explained that Riley was the “first baby” of their next generation. He was the first child from his brother, Thomas.

Matt-Sale: I have to tell you one story that really inspired me. I’ll never forget this story. He was…

Ann: Probably 4 or 5 years old. 4 to 5.

I know he was in elementary school as a kindergarten student, of course, the fire department came to his school to show their fire truck and give demonstrations. Of course the kids were really into that. The firemen showed off their hose, how it works and gave tips on what to do in case of a fire or if the fire alarm goes off.

He went home that night and later, my brother, Thomas, said he saw Riley speaking on the phone with a phonebook opened up. He took the phone away and asked who was calling to the person on the phone.

He realized Riley had called 9-1-1…

Ann: It was the fire department.

Matt-Sale: Fire department.

Tommy asked what was happening. The fire department said Riley was concerned because he had a deaf uncle and he can’t hear the fire alarm. He was worried and he didn’t know what to do.

Thomas was taken aback and told them he would explain to Riley that they already have strobe lights and everything installed and accessible for deaf people. He thanked them and hung up the phone.

Thomas explained to Riley that everything including a strobe light was set in place to make it accessible for deaf people.

Riley was really and unrestrainedly concerned. That hit me and we knew that he really cared and was thoughtful of other people, and at 4-5 years of age. He thought of others, wow.

He was considerate of others.

[Images of family]

Image 1: Matt-Sale with young Riley

Image 2: Thomas (Riley’s father) with Matt-Sale

Image 3: Dexton (Matt-Sale’s son) with Riley in 2017

Matt-Sale: He was always really happy and always smiled. I’ve never seen him upset, never.

Hadn’t seen him mad either.

Never, he smiled and always said, “Sure!”


But at the same time, of course everyone remembers him as a happy person, but I want to emphasize one thing: that he was not afraid, unafraid of anything. He would do anything. He had guts. His mother would worry and remind him to be careful at times, but he would do anything for you. He would do a dare without any fear.

Just wow. He was not afraid.

Alex: Thank you both for being willing to share. Our condolences goes out to you and your family.

During a memorial service on Sunday, the father of Riley’s girlfriend asked mourners to raise their hands with the “I love you” handshape.

[News video clip of mourners raising their hands to show a ILY handshape]

Alex: Matt-Sale said that moment was very hard for him as he was overcome with emotion and struggled to raise his arm.

Riley was buried with full military honors.

[(Clip of uniformed members of the military giving honors). Text reads, “Riley was a ROTC cadet and would have served his country. He received a honor guard detail, which is normally reserved for veterans.”]

There was a second student who died, Ellis Parlier (19). He had a private funeral last weekend.