SUTHERLAND SPRINGS — The residents of this rural Texas community knew mass shootings have become common across the nation, but they never thought it could happen here.
Now, Sutherland Springs, with its roughly 650 residents, is the site of the state’s deadliest shooting and the nation's deadliest church massacre.
“Nothing had happened here and now this. It’s just like some other places,” Mary Mendez said as she stood in the door frame of her house Monday morning, a few blocks from the First Baptist Church where a lone gunman killed 26 people and injured 20 others the day before. “I think the world, I think we’re getting to the end. So many things have happened.”
Mendez’s 74-year-old niece, Maggie, was shot in the leg when Devin Kelley, 26, fired an assault rifle at the church’s small congregation during Sunday morning services, leaving behind victims as young as 18 months and as old as 77 before crashing his vehicle as he was pursued by two local men — one of whom reportedly exchanged gunfire with Kelley. His body was found in the vehicle and authorities haven't yet released the cause of death.
Mendez said her niece would be okay, though she didn’t know what hospital she was at and hadn’t been able to get in touch with her yet. Mostly, she said, she feels bad for her neighbors who lost family members.
Four of the nation's five deadliest mass shootings have happened in the past five years, and two have come in the past 35 days — the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history happened last month in Las Vegas, when Stephen Paddock killed 58 people and injured more than 500 at a music festival.
But it was hard to imagine something like what happened in Las Vegas taking place in this unincorporated community about 30 miles southeast of San Antonio.
Sutherland Springs sits off a highway and consists primarily of several blocks of small, aging homes, a community center, two gas stations and a Dollar General.
And, of course, the First Baptist Church.
“I knew everybody [at the church],” Robert Kunz said Monday outside the Valero gas station, where he grabs his morning cup of coffee every day before heading to work at his tire shop. “This is a close-knit community. They were all my customers.”
The victims' names have not yet been identified by law enforcement, but if all those killed at the church lived in the community, they would represent about 4 percent of Sutherland Springs' population.
“This is heartbreaking,” said Lupe Picasso of nearby La Vernia. Tears fell down her face as she held her 3-year-old son. “You don’t expect this to happen in a small community like this. Church is supposed to be a safe place for everybody.”
The tragedy drew Picasso to the First Baptist Church from her town about 10 minutes away. She wanted to see how she could help those who lost loved ones in the shooting. She wasn’t alone.
Throughout the morning, people from neighboring towns and San Antonio arrived with flowers, food or just a willingness to help those in need. Food donations were being collected at tents set up outside the community center and shipped off to the families who just lost their loved ones. One man from a town about an hour and a half away said he was a carpenter and wanted to help repair the church.
At the donation tents, Rich Schultz, who lives a few miles from Sutherland Springs, said he was amazed at how many people have arrived to help.
“I feel proud for the people who have come out to help so far,” he said.
The residents spoke of their sense of community and faith in God that would be needed in the days and months to come. And they seemed to agree on one idea: stricter gun control wouldn't solve the epidemic of mass shootings in America.
“This community is … pro-Second Amendment, and we are for law-abiding citizens owning guns," Karen Comeaux said near the post office across the highway from the church. "In a situation like this, it could have prevented a lot more devastation.”
Surveying the media swarm that had invaded his town Monday morning, Kunz leaned against his truck at the Valero with coffee in hand, chatting with several other townsfolk and occasionally spitting tobacco. His eyes hardened a bit when the topic turned to guns, and his answer matched those of the other residents.
“I don’t believe gun control is the answer,” he said. “I can tell you this: don’t come to another church in South Texas and try to shoot somebody, because everybody’s gonna be armed,” he said.
Read related Tribune coverage:
A lone gunman killed at least 26 people and injured many more at a church in Sutherland Springs. The tiny town was left reeling from the deadliest shooting at a place of worship in American history. [Full story]
The shooter who killed 26 people at a church outside of San Antonio tried to get a license to carry a gun in Texas but was denied one by the state, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told CNN's Chris Cuomo. [Full story]