SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas — It was one of those towns where everybody knows everybody, seemingly far removed from the violence that stalked big cities, where you could leave your front door unlocked and the sound of gunfire signified recreation and not cause for concern.
But then came Sunday morning, when a man in black armed with an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle showed up at the First Baptist Church. Moving methodically from pew to pew in the tiny sanctuary, he slaughtered half the congregation in a matter of minutes. Survivors describe him hovering over weeping women and crying children, firing hundreds of rounds in an effort to extinguish any sign of life. The local sheriff who was one of the first on the scene initially couldn’t distinguish the 26 dead from the nearly two dozen wounded.
Suddenly, on Monday, Sutherland Springs — this tiny town on the dusty back roads of south Texas that few people had ever heard of — joined Newtown, San Bernardino and Oklahoma City on the roll call of modern American atrocity sites. This one-stoplight town about 35 miles southeast of San Antonio where everybody knew everybody was suddenly full of strangers, swarmed by hundreds of reporters who parked their rental cars and satellite trucks on every foot of land for a half a mile in every direction from the only major intersection.
Grief counselors descended on the area to offer comfort to those in need, but like reporters, many wandered around the few square blocks of the town — much of it behind yellow caution tape — unable to find any “real people” to talk to. Volunteer agencies like the American Red Cross showed up in motor homes ready to render aid, but most workers stood around, looking at their phones for the latest information and talking to members of the media.
“We’re here to help, but it seems like the only people here are reporters,” a counselor with the Billy Graham Ministries who had driven from Dallas, five hours away, told a reporter outside the VP gas station, two blocks from the church and one of just four commercial businesses in the town.
Across state Highway 87, the main route through Sutherland Springs, there was a post office. That was next door to the Valero, the other gas station in town, which sits directly across the street from the First Baptist Church. A block from there was the Dollar General, where the parking lot was full of TV reporters doing live shots. The rest of the area was rolling farmland, dotted with the occasional trailer and ranch house.
“This is a small place, which is why you can’t wrap your mind around something like this happening here,” said Lorenzo Flores, who along with his girlfriend, Terrie Smith, owns a restaurant inside the Valero gas station across the street from the crime scene. “You can’t make any sense of it, no sense at all.”
Those residents who did emerge were swarmed by reporters who thrust cameras in their faces to capture every word and tear. What did they see? Did they know any victims? How will the town recover? And increasingly, throughout the day, there was the trickier question — particularly for a region where firearms are an integral part of the culture, like going to church and watching football: Should there be new limits on guns to prevent anything like this from happening again?
It was a subject that many here waved off — both residents and local officials — saying it was too soon to talk about as the community recovers from the shock and grief of an attack that affected nearly everyone in this small town of roughly 600.
But those who did talk about it suggested that one lesson of Sunday’s massacre is that more guns seemed to be the answer, not fewer.
On Sunday, Stephen Willeford, a former NRA instructor who lived across the street from the church, grabbed his rifle when he heard gunfire coming from the sanctuary. He ran outside and began firing at the gunman, identified by police as Devin Patrick Kelley, wounding him at least twice and forcing him to drop his weapon and flee the scene. Willeford and another man, Johnnie Langendorff, pursued Kelley in a high-speed chase that ended with the gunman crashing in a field about 10 miles away. Local officials have called Willeford “a Texas hero,” saying he likely stopped Kelley from causing more carnage.
On Monday night, Willeford, who gave a single local television interview but has otherwise shunned reporters, was greeted with tears and hugs as he arrived at a memorial service for the victims at a ballpark a few blocks from the church.
“People will say you should ban guns like the one that was used by that killer,” said Raymond Martinez, a former resident who returned to the town to mourn the victims. “But then the neighbor probably wouldn’t have had his gun, and who would have stopped [Kelley] from killing more people?”
Freda Connolly, who lived a few blocks from the church, said she felt dread thinking about a religious sanctuary, a place that should have a feeling of safety and peace, now disrupted by fear. She didn’t necessarily like the idea of people openly carrying guns, or seeing police or armed security guarding the doors.
But after this, she said, she understood why people would now feel more than ever the need to have guns. “What choice is there?” she said.
As the sun went down on Monday night in a town that now turns to dealing with how it will mourn and bury the dead, Meredith Cooper stood across the street from the First Baptist Church with her 8-year-old daughter, Heather. The two had driven from San Antonio to visit the scene and mourn with a town that they had no connection to.
Cooper said her daughter, who had heard about the attack on television, was upset and had wanted to visit the scene to lay flowers for the victims. Her school in San Antonio had been on lockdown earlier Monday, amid a heightened sense of threat. “You have kids her age trying to understand why,” Cooper said, as her daughter began to cry. “How do you explain this to a child when you can’t even understand it?”
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