SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas — It didn’t sound out of the ordinary at first. A quick pop, pop, pop that was very clearly gunfire, but Terrie Smith had heard noises like that before plenty of times.
It was the soundtrack of any small town here along the back roads of South Texas, where people are known to shoot rattlesnakes and other critters even in broad daylight — sometimes for safety, but more often for fun — without anyone blinking an eye.
But as Smith walked into Teresa’s Restaurant, her namesake eatery inside the Valero gas station here, just off state Highway 87 a little before 11:30 on Sunday morning, the pops suddenly turned into rapid bursts that didn’t stop. “Someone’s shooting out there,” someone yelled.
Running out to the parking lot, she looked across the street to the First Baptist Church, just a hundred or so yards away, where the congregants were some of her closest friends and customers. Near the front of the building, she saw a figure dressed all in black clutching what looked like a machine gun. With every burst of fire, she saw his body visibly quake, as he sprayed the outside the church with bullets again and again.
On Monday, authorities confirmed the gunman was Devin Kelley, 26, from nearby New Braunfels, Texas, about 40 minutes north of Sutherland Springs. While the investigation is ongoing, police said Kelley may have targeted the church because of a “domestic dispute” with his wife’s family, who attended the church. (They were not in church on Sunday.)
“I couldn’t see his face. I could only see his body shaking and shaking as he shot the gun,” Smith tearfully recalled. “When I close my eyes, I just see him just shooting and shooting and shooting.”
Less than 24 hours later, Smith stood in the same spot in the parking lot of the Valero, recounting to a reporter how time seemed to stand still in that moment, how the gunshots echoed though this tiny town with its single traffic light and how she knew even in that instant that things would probably never be the same ever again.
“Stuff like this doesn’t happen here. It just doesn’t,” she asked, tears running down her face. “We’re a good community. How could this happen here?”
As Kelley continued to take aim at the church on Sunday morning, something within Smith clicked. She raced towards customers who stood dumbstruck near the gas pumps, staring at the scene of horror across the street, yelling for them to get down. They fell on the ground, crawling toward each other as the shots continued.
During a lull in the gunfire, she and the others crawled toward the store and locked themselves inside. Peeking through the window, she saw the gunman enter the church, where the spray of gunfire continued again and again — though the sound was more muffled and dulled. “There were so many rounds,” she said. “It just went on and on. You could just hear it constantly. And then there was a silence. And then there were more rounds. And then there was silence.”
After a few minutes, she saw a man rush out of the back door of the church, running toward the store. He was covered in blood and badly injured, with wounds on his head and on his arm. As he got closer, she recognized him as the son of a customer and opened the door. “Somebody’s shooting in there! Somebody went in and shot everybody,” the man gasped as he collapsed to the ground.
As she recalled the moment, Smith could began to sob. “He kept saying, ‘My family’s in there. My family’s in there,’” she said through tears. “And we couldn’t do nothing. We couldn’t do nothing.”
He was the only victim she saw emerge from the church alive.
From across the street, she heard gunfire that didn’t sound like the rapid bursts before. She saw the man that police now identify as Kelley running toward his truck, his weapon missing. She heard more shots, this time apparently from a neighbor firing at the gunman. Behind the wheel, Kelley sped into the intersection, where it appeared to Smith that a bullet shattered one of his truck’s windows, and he briefly lost control before heading north on State Road 539. He was pursued by a second truck, driven by Johnnie Langendorff, who had been flagged down by the neighbor. The two took off after Kelley, who, according to the account by law-enforcement officials, crashed in a field 10 miles away, and was found dead by police. He had been shot by the neighbor and had also suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound, although officials said the sequence was unclear.
Back at the Valero, where the parking lot on Monday morning was filled with media trucks, Smith cried as she wondered about the fate of her community. It was a town where everybody knew everybody and people banded together in times of hardship. But now 26 people were dead, with many others badly injured.
She knew almost everybody who died. Her best friend, Joanna, was killed, along with two of her kids. “Her little son is just hanging on,” she said, crying.
Looking back towards the church, she stared, unable to speak as dozens of men and women in blue FBI jackets slowly walked down a street collecting evidence. On Sunday mornings, the town was so quiet you could often hear the sound of congregants singing praise songs and church hymns inside. But now all she can hear in her memory is the sound of gunfire, those bursts that seemed unending.
“We’re a good community, we’re a good community,” she said. “When people are struggling, we all come together. I don’t know what we do now.”
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