SALSBURY — SALISBURY -- Brian Ball put his arm around his wife, Janice, as they walked down the church aisle behind the draped casket that held the body of their 15-year-old son.
The couple and family members who filed into the pew behind them offered each other support with similar gestures throughout yesterday's Mass for Brian Christopher Ball, the Texas youth who drank himself to death at a party last Friday night.
As the Mass in St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church began, some of those in attendance sang the hymn "On Eagle's Wings." Several teen-agers cried and sought comfort from their friends and parents who stood alongside them.
Brian died two days after attending a party where an estimated 200 teen-agers paid $3 for all the beer they could drink and 50 cents for a shot of hard liquor. Brian reportedly drank 26 shots of vodka.
The state medical examiner has concluded that Brian's death was caused by acute ethanol intoxication -- or alcohol overdose. Police say toxicology tests are still being conducted.
Since the incident, Mr. and Mrs. Ball have shared their grief publicly, with the goal of preventing a similar tragedy for another family. Those efforts have resulted in Brian's death becoming a symbol of the dangers of teen-age drinking in this Eastern Shore community.
The Rev. Charles Brown took up that theme in his sermon. "In his 15 years, Brian touched the lives of many people. We pray that his death will touch the lives of countless more. . . . Brian's death also gives us a challenge . . . to recognize that all actions have consequences," the priest said.
Many of the approximately 70 teen-agers and adults who gathered to pay their respects feared the message would be lost on some teens.
"That's the whole problem," said 16-year-old Holly Marshall. "They don't think it could happen to them . . . even after this."
Adults at the funeral shielded other teens from the media. "These kids are in a lot of pain," said one woman who declined to give her name.
Holly Marshall agreed. "Nobody understands why it should have happened," she said.
Some of what happened to Brian Friday night remains a puzzle, the pieces of which police are still putting together.
Investigators said youths they have interviewed said the house where the party was held was crowded. Although word was spreading about the boy who had drunk 26 shots, most were unaware that Brian had become ill.
Police say that Brian passed out and was taken outdoors into the rain in the hopes that the fresh air would revive him.
State Police Sgt. William Gordy believes that the youths panicked. "Kids were paying attention to him, but of course what they were doing [at the party] was illegal, so they didn't know what to do."
Police have changed part of their initial report of the events Friday night at the hospital. Police had first reported that Brian had been left in the hospital parking lot before hospital workers found him.
"We understand now, after additional interviews, that the car with the youths left [only after] Brian was inside [the hospital]," said Chuck Jackson, state police spokesman. "The two youths who were in the car declined to go in and accompany him. They did remain long enough for the staff to emerge and transport Brian inside."
Recalling the events of Friday night, 16-year-old Kevin Maynard, who was at the party, said he found Brian lying in the grass unconscious. He said he moved him into the garage, realized the boy's eyes were "flipping into the back of his head" and got a friend to help take him to the emergency room of Peninsula General Hospital Medical Center.
But he and the hospital give differing descriptions of what happened next.
Kevin maintains that his friend, who has not been named, went into the emergency room to get help.
When the hospital staff came out to his car, Kevin said, he told them that they had found Brian beside a road and did not know who he was or anything about him. Kevin said he helped medical workers move Brian onto a back board, which hospital officials said they use for auto accident victims. Kevin conceded that the boys lied out of fear they would get into trouble for having been at the party.
Dr. Robert A. Adkins, the emergency room director, said the boys reported that Brian may have been struck by a car. "My recollection, after talking to the people at the hospital who received Brian, was that the youths said they found him along the side of the road and that he may have been struck by a car," the doctor said. "We sort of had a curve ball thrown at us."
The discrepancy between the two versions was not cleared up by state police. "As far as the conversation hospital staff had with the youths, we can't confirm that," Mr. Jackson said.
If medical personnel had known the true nature of Brian's condition, Dr. Adkins said, "We would have done things differently. But it wouldn't necessarily have gone differently for [Brian]."
When Brian arrived at the hospital, Dr. Adkins said he was not breathing, had no blood pressure, his pupils were fixed and dilated, his skin was bluish, and his pulse was weak and slow. "In treatment of a case like his, you try to establish breathing, run IV [intravenous] lines and get any bleeding under control," Dr. Adkins said. "He never did breathe on his own."
From the emergency room, Brian was transferred to intensive care, where he was pronounced dead on Sunday evening.
There will be a second funeral Mass for Brian next Sunday in his hometown, Trenton, Texas. Mr. and Mrs. Ball have said that they believed Brian's friends were shaken by his death and will learn from it. For now, Janice Ball said, "There has been a hand to hold and a hug any time I need one."