CNN  — 

When a gunman opened fire in a University of North Carolina at Charlotte classroom, sending people diving for cover and rushing toward a door, student Riley Howell charged and knocked into the shooter, police say.

Howell died for his efforts, shot by the gunman he rushed. But he was the “first and foremost hero” in bringing Tuesday evening’s shooting to an end, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney said.

“He took the fight to the assailant,” Putney said Wednesday. “Unfortunately, he had to give his life to do so, but he saved lives doing so.”

Putney said the 21-year-old Howell – one of two people killed in the shooting – knocked the gunman off his feet, and that helped lead to his capture.

Riley Howell

An officer ran into the classroom, disarmed the suspect and arrested him, police said.

The shooter entered a classroom Tuesday evening and opened fire just as Howell and about 30 other students were listening to final presentations in their liberal studies class.

Howell was shot “point blank” while rushing the gunman down, his aunt Morgan Howell Moylan said, relaying what police had told her family. Another student, 19-year-old Reed Parlier of Midland, North Carolina, also was killed, the school said. Four other students were wounded in the attack.

Howell did exactly what law enforcement recommend people do in an active shooter situation, Putney said.

“You’re either going to run, you’re going to hide and shield, or you’re going to take the fight to the assailant. Having no place to run or hide, he did the last,” he said.

‘He did such a heroic thing,’ aunt says

Howell’s grieving relatives say they weren’t surprised to hear of his final actions.

“He did such a heroic thing,” Moylan told CNN. “He was everybody’s protector. You felt safe when you were with Riley.”

In an interview with NBC News, his mother, Natalie Henry-Howell, said the family is “just beyond proud of what he was able to do.”

“While kids were running one way, our son turned and ran toward the shooter,” Henry-Howell said in an interview broadcast Thursday morning on NBC’s “Today” show.

“That’s what he would have done, no matter what,” his girlfriend of five years, Lauren Westmoreland, told NBC.

On Thursday morning, police were escorting a vehicle carrying Howell’s body to Waynesville, roughly a two-and-a-half-hour drive west of Charlotte.

A vehicle carrying Howell's body back to his hometown Thursday, escorted by police, goes under an overpass where a fire crew raised a US flag in tribute.

Howell wanted to join the military or become a firefighter

Howell grew up taking care of his three younger siblings on his family’s farm in Waynesville. He spent time working out with first responders and dreamed of serving in the military or firefighting.

In a statement, Howell’s family said he always stood up for what he believed and didn’t hesitate to help those in need.

“His faith was strong and he knew what he had to do when people needed him most,” the family said in a statement Wednesday. “He was always the guy you could count on and he delivered.”

“He put others before himself,” one of his sisters, Juliet Howell, told NBC. “He always has.”

His aunt said Howell had put off signing up for the military to go to college. After graduating from Roberson High School in Asheville, North Carolina, he briefly attended Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College before transferring to UNCC.

This was his first year at the university and, as were many other students, Howell was attending the term’s final day of classes on Tuesday.

Moylan described her nephew as a “big teddy bear” who loved to cook, spend time outdoors and enjoyed working for a landscaping company.

“He was super fit, always the one who was showing all the kids things, he drove the boat at the lake house,” she said.

Other victims identified

The university has identified those who were wounded as Rami Al-Ramadhan, 20, of Saihat, Saudi Arabia; Sean DeHart, 20, and Drew Pescaro, 19, of Apex, North Carolina, and Emily Houpt, 23, of Charlotte.

CNN’s Jason Hanna contributed to this report.