A small community Baptist church at the intersection of two country roads became the scene of the nation’s latest mass shooting when a gunman opened fire on a worship service Sunday, leaving 26 people dead.
In what officials said is the deadliest shooting in Texas history, the gunman began his attack on worshippers at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs about 11:20 a.m., sending them running for their lives into an open field and toward a nearby country store for safety.
At least 20 others were injured in the shooting, Texas Department of Public Safety regional commander Freeman Martin said. The ages of the victims ranged from 5 to 72, according to officials.
As word of what had happened spread through the tight-knit town of about 500 people, desperate family members raced to the church, trying to learn whether their loved ones were among the living or dead. Officials from federal, state and local law enforcement agencies blocked the area to scour for evidence and begin the process of removing those killed from the church.
Authorities have not confirmed the shooter’s identify. However, NBC News and other outlets identified him Sunday as 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley, a former member of the Air Force who lived near New Braunfels in Comal County.
On Sunday evening, law enforcement had blocked the driveway of Kelley’s rural home, which sits on about 5 acres. Kelley was dishonorably discharged from the Air Force, several news outlets reported. In recent Facebook posts he showed off an AR-15 assault rifle.
Gov. Greg Abbott, who traveled from Austin to nearby Stockdale for a news conference, ordered flags lowered to half-staff through Thursday.
“There are so many families who have lost family members, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters,” Abbott said. “The tragedy is worsened by the fact that it occurred in a church, a place of worship. We mourn their loss, but we support their family members.”
The carnage began just after a man was seen lingering outside a gas station across from the church dressed in all black, authorities said.
Armed with a Ruger assault rifle, he crossed the street and began firing into the church, and then he entered the church, Freeman said.
After the shooter emerged from the church, an armed resident tried to stop him, authorities said. The shooter dropped his weapon and fled and was later found dead in his vehicle in a ditch on the Wilson-Guadalupe county line, Freeman said. It is not clear whether he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound or was killed by the resident who confronted him, Freeman said.
A man who lives across the street from the church told the American-Statesman he heard about 100 shots.
David Ricks said he was cooking breakfast about 11:30 a.m. when he heard a hail of gunfire.
He walked to his front door and “saw some people running through the field toward the Valero,” he said.
First Baptist Church pastor Frank Pomeroy told ABC News that his 14-year-old daughter was among those killed. Pomeroy and his wife were out of town at the time of the attack.
Outside the church on Sunday afternoon, Regina Rodriguez huddled with family members as they cried and hugged.
She said she received a call shortly after noon about the shooting, and that her father, Richard Rodriguez, faithfully attends church each Sunday.
“I’ve been calling him, and he doesn’t answer,” she told the American-Statesman. Asked what was going through her mind, she responded, “I just lost my father.”
The church has posted videos of its Sunday services on a YouTube channel, raising the possibility that the shooting was captured on video.
Megan Posey, a spokeswoman for Connally Memorial Medical Center, which is in Floresville about 10 miles from the church, told the AP that “multiple” victims were being treated for gunshot wounds.
She declined to give a specific number but said it was less than a dozen. In an interview on MSNBC, church member Sandy Ward said her daughter-in-law and four grandchildren were in the church service. She said her 7-year-old granddaughter is not going to make it. Her grandson was shot four times and is undergoing surgery.
The American Red Cross has set up a family assistance center in Wilson County.
Authorities declined to identify any of those killed until next of kin are notified.
“We are still trying to work the crime scene,” Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt said. “We need your support. We sincerely feel sorry for all of the people that are involved.”
The FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Texas Rangers are assisting the Wilson County sheriff’s office and other law enforcement agencies with the investigation.
“They are continuing in their efforts as they put all the pieces of a complex puzzle together,” Abbott said. “We ask for God’s comfort, for God’s guidance and for God’s healing for all those who are suffering. For every Mom and Dad at home tonight, put your arm around your kid and give your kid a big hug, and let them know how much you love them.”
“We’re saddened and shocked,” said Carrie Matula, who was inside the church during the shooting. “We do know some of the people who were killed.
“We have an idea of who did this. We don’t know why. It’s a small town. It’s going around the rumor mill pretty quick.”
As night fell outside the church, dozens of townspeople carrying candles showed up to a prayer vigil near the parking lot of the local U.S. Post Office.
Sutherland Springs resident Mike Gonzales said he organized the event to help provide hope.
“The light of the people here will prevail,” he said. “Darkness will lose.”
Additional material from staff writer Omar Gallaga and The Associated Press.