Sutherland Springs residents grieve lost neighbors in church massacre

When someone died in Sutherland Springs recently, the whole town came together to raise money for a proper funeral.

That’s the town Terri Smith knew when she stepped out of her car Sunday outside the Valero gas station that houses her restaurant, Theresa’s Kitchen. She heard gunshots.

“That’s common,” she said. “They’ll shoot a rattlesnake out here.”

But this sounded different.

Smith looked across the street and saw a man outside First Baptist Church, shooting inward and then running into the church. The gunfire came in long bursts after that, what seemed like constant rounds, then silence. She saw the man run out again then, more shots, different shots.

She remembered watching the shooter’s body shaking as he fired.

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“All I could think was get the customers on the ground to safety,” she said. “We fell on the ground. We were kind of just crawling back to the door. … We locked ourselves in.”

A victim ran out of the church, his arms and face bloodied. They let him into the gas station. He said his family was still in the church. She didn’t know the man but recognized him — maybe Kip’s son?

“It’s a very small community,” Smith said. “Everyone knows everyone.”

Sutherland Springs is the heart of a rural ZIP code with just 698 people, an unincorporated town without so much as a mayor or a police chief. And on Monday, its residents wrestled with the reality of a massacre that left 26 Sunday churchgoers needing funerals. The youngest of the dead was just 18 months old, the eldest 77 years old. Twenty others were wounded.

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Hundreds of reporters choked the no-stoplight town early Monday as bewildered residents wondered how this could happen here.

Beulah Wilson, 88, has been a member of First Baptist for nearly 50 years. Her five children grew up there, were baptized there, got married there. On Sunday, it just so happened that she was visiting another church up the road. When she came out of the service, someone warned her not to go through Sutherland Springs — there was a shooter.

“We thought, ‘Why would there be a shooter up here?’ ” she said. “The only people would be at church.”

She decided to delay her trip home by grabbing lunch across the street until the road cleared. There, the news of what had happened came.

“And we just started praying,” Wilson said, choking up Monday. “I’ve got friends that are dead, and I don’t even know which ones.”

It’s like a bad dream and she can’t wake up, Wilson said. But she’s holding on to her faith.

“I don’t know how people get through this without the Lord,” she said. “I just have to trust him.”

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A few minutes’ drive down the road, at River Oaks Baptist Church, the church sign Monday read, “Our sin is great, God’s grace is greater.” There, Red Cross vans and grieving residents gathered, beginning to plan funerals.

There seem to be more churches than any other establishments around Sutherland Springs, a town named for Dr. John Sutherland, who tended to the sick at the Alamo as the Mexican Army approached, according to the town museum’s website.

The town served as the seat of Wilson County in the 1860s and a resort getaway in the early 1900s, but the population gradually declined after the 1918 flu outbreak, a 1927 fire and then the Great Depression.

Now, it’s somewhere people come to get away from the evils of elsewhere.

Douglas Longsdorf, 57, moved to Sutherland Springs from San Antonio to get away from the crime of the city. On Sunday, when he heard gunshots, he assumed it was someone hunting deer.

But it seemed like an awful lot of shots for hunting. He told a friend standing next to him, “Maybe someone shot up the Valero.” It was a joke, because the idea of anyone shooting up anything there seemed absurd.

A few minutes later, the sirens started racing down the street, and a feeling of horror settled into Longsdorf’s gut.

“I was sick to my stomach,” he said. “I can’t believe there’s people out there like that.”

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Jose Anguiano, 60, bought a house in Sutherland Springs just six months ago. He and his wife felt shaken up by violence in their home community south of Miami and wanted to move somewhere quiet, out of the way, safe. They knew someone in the Sutherland area and looked forward to quiet evenings of sitting on the back porch with friends.

When he started hearing the gunfire from his house Sunday, he knew it wasn’t normal hunting sounds. A few minutes later, an acquaintance with a police scanner called to tell him it was the church.

“The people there, they didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “Why kill all those people? Little kids?”

He’s trying — unsuccessfully — not to think about it.

As mass shootings have become more and more a part of American life, they’ve worked their way into Anguiano’s psyche. For the past few years, he and his wife have avoided sporting events and crowded public places, because that’s where things like that happen, he said.

“You try to stay away,” he said. “But then, we just moved here and this happened across the street.”

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John Riley, 80, was baling hay about a mile down the road from First Baptist when he heard the shots. A native of Wilson County, he never learned to read or write but raised five children here and worked as an equipment operator for the county. He thought mass shootings were something that happened in the city, not small communities like this.

Asked how the community will recover, he shakes his head.

“Some of those people ain’t going to recover,” he said.

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