SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas – Hundreds of people will gather in the tiny town of Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday to worship with surviving members of a local church where a shooting rampage left more than two dozen people dead.
Members of the First Baptist Church will hold a church service for the first time since a gunman opened fire inside the small church a week earlier in the worst mass shooting in Texas history.
Initial plans called for gathering at a community centre could house a few dozen people. But when organizers realized about 500 people were planning to attend, the service was moved outside to a baseball park.
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Church representatives also plan to eventually open a public memorial inside the church, where 26 empty chairs have been placed. Authorities have put the official death toll at 26 victims because one of the 25 people killed was pregnant. Church officials have said the building will likely be demolished.
On Saturday, about 100 people gathered outside the town’s community centre to commemorate Veterans Day and to honour the shooting victims, nearly half of whom had ties to the Air Force.
“Maybe this will start the healing process that will get Sutherland Springs and Wilson County to put this horrific tragedy behind us and look to the future,” county Judge Richard Jackson, his voice breaking, told the crowd, which included first responders and law enforcement officers.
Jackson, the county’s top administrator, thanked the first responders and others who rushed to First Baptist Church in the aftermath of last Sunday’s shooting, which also wounded about 20 people. What they saw there will affect them the rest of their lives, Jackson said.
The gunman, Devin Patrick Kelley, died of what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound after being shot and chased by two men who heard gunfire from the church. Investigators have said the attack appeared to stem from a domestic dispute involving Kelley and his mother-in-law, who sometimes attended services at the church but wasn’t there the day of the shooting.
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Kelley had a history of domestic violence: He was given a bad conduct discharge from the Air Force after pleading guilty to assaulting his first wife and stepson.
Sutherland Springs is about 30 miles (48 kilometres) southeast of San Antonio and not far from several military posts, including Lackland Air Force Base. The Air Force’s chief of staff, Gen. David Goldfein, said 12 of those killed were either members of the Air Force or had family ties to it.
Among them were Scott and Karen Marshall, both 56, who had decided to retire in nearby La Vernia after meeting when they were in the service together more than 30 years ago. On Thursday, a military funeral was held for them at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph.
On Saturday, two silver hearses carried the bodies another couple, Therese and Richard Rodriguez, to a small cemetery on the edge of Sutherland Springs following a funeral.
Retired Chief Warrant Officer Mike Gonzales, who led Saturday’s Veterans Day ceremony, said many veterans choose to live in the San Antonio area because of its deep military ties, and families tend to migrate to the city’s surrounding rural areas.
“We come here to enjoy life, to get quiet and to raise our children,” he said. “We’ve been to war zones and seen that tragedy firsthand. Never did we think that tragedy would strike here.”
A steady stream of people also visited a makeshift memorial of crosses adorned with flowers, photographs, red hearts and white, purple and pink balloons. Among them was Jackie Lee, who travelled from San Antonio with several friends.
“It was on my heart since it happened,” she said. “I needed to come to show the community some support, to show these people some support.”