As his friends screamed and ran for their lives, Strong ran toward Carneal, who had told him last week to stay away from Monday's circle _ a mysterious warning that had worried him all weekend.
"When we got done praying, I kind of thought everything was going to be OK," Strong said. "And I just heard a pop and I spun around. And I ... was like, 'Mike, what are you doing? And then he just let a bunch of them go."
Strong said Carneal squeezed off 11 shots before he knew what was happening.
"Then I seen some people fall, and I seen blood," Strong said. "And I just ran over there. ... I was just telling him to be calm, drop the gun, whatever. And he just kind of slouched down and dropped the gun."
By then, 15-year-old Kayce Steger, Jessica James, 17, and 14-year-old Nichole Hadley were shot. All were dead by Monday night.
Of the wounded students, ages 14 to 17, two were hospitalized in serious condition, one was listed in good condition and two were treated and released.
Carneal was charged as a juvenile with murder and attempted murder and also with burglary for allegedly stealing on Thanksgiving Day the pistol used in the shootings and four rifles found among his belongings. The homeowner didn't know the weapons were missing until deputies called after the shootings.
Authorities did not identify Carneal as the suspect, but friends and others at the scene confirmed his name to The Associated Press. A Dec. 10 hearing was set to decide whether the case should be transferred to adult court.
As families mourned, dazed school officials and authorities began piecing together a picture of Carneal, the son of an attorney in this small western Kentucky community just south of the Ohio River.
Principal Bill Bond described him as a "very intelligent young man" who had had "some minor problems" but had never been suspended from school.
Strong said Carneal had been picked on but no more than other students. He said Carneal hung out with people who said they didn't believe in God _ some would even occasionally heckle the informal worship group.
"It was pretty much making fun of, stupid little things like that," said Michael Zink, a 16-year-old student who identified his friend Carneal as the gunman. He said Carneal and others who called themselves atheists were "just trying to be rude and obnoxious."
The Rev. Kevin McCallon, who visited witnesses and victims' families, said no one believed Carneal was a genuine threat.
"They saw him as a jokester," McCallon said. "Even when he pulled the gun, they thought it was a toy. They had no idea he was capable of any of this."
Bond said Carneal had warned friends last week that "something big's going to happen" and they chalked it up as a potential prank. But authorities said there was no indication of a specific motive, and Carneal didn't mention religion to investigators.
"He stated there was no personal vendetta against anyone. It was just a random shooting," said Frank Augustus, the McCracken County sheriff. Asked about a motive, the sheriff said: "He himself will have to answer that, and he says he doesn't know why."
Carneal allegedly carried a handgun with extra ammunition, two rifles and two shotguns into the crowded lobby, concealing the larger weapons in blankets. He told curious students the bundle contained props for a science experiment.
Witnesses said he waited until the prayer group was finished before calmly inserting earplugs and pulling the pistol out of a backpack.
"As soon as they said amen, he opened up on them," Bond said. "Only the first three shots could have been aimed. After that, it was just as fast as he could pull the trigger."
Bond praised Strong's courage for approaching the gunman as he was still firing. The handgun still had a bullet in the clip when the shooting stopped.
"He was, like, 'I can't believe I'd do this,"' Strong said. "Because he shot one of his friends who was just a few feet away, because he wasn't aiming at any person. And he said, 'Kill me now' or something like that."
Strong said Carneal had warned him on Wednesday not to be at the prayer gathering, a statement he confided to a friend and his older brother.
"He told me he was going to do something, but he wouldn't tell me what it was," Strong said. "But he told me not to be there, because, you know, we're friends."