Saturday 26 May 2018

Children among 26 shot dead in massacre at Texas church

Emergency services gather at the church. Photo: MAX MASSEY/ KSAT 12/via REUTERS
Emergency services gather at the church. Photo: MAX MASSEY/ KSAT 12/via REUTERS

Lisa Maria Garza

A gunman massacred at least 26 worshippers including a number of children at a church in Texas yesterday.

The shooting occurred at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs in Wilson County, about 65km east of San Antonio.

The lone suspect, wearing black "tactical" clothing, entered the building and began firing, police say. After the shooting, he fled in his vehicle and was later found dead a short distance away.

The dead are aged between 5 and 72, according to authorities.

Police named the gunman as Devin Kelley a white, 26-year-old man from San Antonio. Kelley was dishonourably discharged from the Air Force after facing a court martial in 2014, CBS News reported.

Pastor Frank Pomeroy said he and his wife Sherri were out of town when the attack happened at the First Baptist Church but their 14-year-old daughter Annabelle was among the dead.

Women embrace at the scene of the killings in Sutherland Springs. Photo: AP
Women embrace at the scene of the killings in Sutherland Springs. Photo: AP

Annabelle "was one very beautiful, special child," Mr Pomeroy told ABC News. His wife said "many friends" had died.

Jeff Forrest, a 36-year-old military veteran who lives a block away from the church, said what sounded like high-calibre, semi-automatic gunfire triggered memories of his four combat deployments with the Marine Corps.

"I was on the porch, I heard 10 rounds go off and then my ears just started ringing," Mr Forrest said. "I hit the deck and I just lay there."

The massacre comes just weeks after a sniper killed 58 people at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history.

President Donald Trump said he was monitoring the situation while in Japan on a 12-day Asian trip.

"May God be w/ the people of Sutherland Springs, Texas. The FBI & law enforcement are on the scene," he said on Twitter last night.

According to the witnesses, about 20 shots rang out at 11.30am local time during the church services. Locals said the death toll claimed half the congregation.

After the shooting, the suspect sped away in a car and was soon cornered by sheriff's deputies just outside of Wilson County in Guadalupe County. It is not known whether the shooter died of a self-inflicted gunshot or was killed by deputies.

"There was no police chase," said sheriff's spokesman Sergeant Robert Murphy in neighbouring Guadalupe County said, denying earlier media reports that the gunman was killed after a pursuit. "He was in his vehicle."

One witness, a cashier at a petrol station over the road from the church, said she heard dozens of shots being fired in rapid succession while the church service was going on.

Carrie Matula said: "We heard semi-automatic gunfire. We're only about 50 yards away from this church. This is a very small community so everyone was very curious as to what was going on." Dana Fletcher, a nearby shopkeeper, said: "It's a little church in a very small community, I don't know why it would be targeted. It's a very tight knit community. People all know each other."

She added: "People weren't sure whether there was more than one gunman."

Connally Memorial Medical Center in Floresville received eight patients, the hospital said, while Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston received another eight.

At Connally, three people were treated and released, one is in critical condition and four were transferred to the University Hospital in San Antonio for a higher level of care.

The First Baptist Church is one of two houses of worship in Sutherland Springs, an area home to fewer than 900 residents, according the 2010 Census. The white-painted, one-storey structure features a small steeple and a single front door. Yesterday, the Lone Star flag of Texas was flying alongside the US flag and a third, unidentified banner.

Inside there is a small raised platform on which members sang worship songs to guitar music and the pastor delivered a weekly sermon, according to videos posted on YouTube. In one of the clips, a few dozen people, including young children, can be seen sitting in the wooden pews.

Pastor Paul Buford of River Oaks Church, about 3km from First Baptist, said the community was deeply shaken. "We are holding up as well as we can," he said. "We are a strong community."

Greg Abbott, the Texas governor, said: "Our prayers are with all who were harmed by this evil act. Our thanks to law enforcement for their response."

The shooting occurred on the eighth anniversary of the November 5, 2009 massacre of 13 people at the Fort Hood Army base in central Texas. A US Army Medical Corps psychiatrist convicted of the killings is now awaiting execution.

Irish Independent

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