SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, TEXAS (REUTERS) – A gunman massacred at least 26 worshipers and wounded 20 others at a white-steepled church in south-east Texas on Sunday (Nov 5), carrying out the latest in a series of mass shootings that have plagued the United States, the authorities said.
The lone suspect, wearing black tactical gear and a ballistic vest and carrying an assault rifle, opened fire after entering the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs in Wilson County, about 65km east of San Antonio.
The victims ranged in age from five to 72 years old, law enforcement officials said at a news conference.
After the shooting, the gunman, described as a white man in his 20s, was fired on by a local resident. He fled in his vehicle and was later found dead in neighbouring Guadalupe County.
It was not immediately clear if the suspect killed himself or he was hit by gunfire by the resident, the authorities said.
“We are dealing with the largest mass shooting in our state’s history,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott said at the news conference. “The tragedy of course is worsened by the fact that it occurred in a church, a place of worship where these people were innocently gunned down.” Neither the suspect’s identity nor motive were disclosed by the authorities.
But law enforcement officials who were not identified have said the gunman was Devin P. Kelley, described as a white, 26-year-old man, the New York Times and other media reported.
The 14-year-old daughter of pastor Frank Pomeroy was killed, the family told several television stations.
Jeff Forrest, a 36-year-old military veteran who lives a block away from the church, said what sounded like high-caliber, semi-automatic gunfire triggered memories of his four combat deployments with the Marine Corps.
“I was on the porch, I heard 10 rounds go off and then my ears just started ringing,” Forrest said. “I hit the deck and I just lay there.”
The massacre comes just weeks after a sniper killed 58 people at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history. The shootings have stirred a years-long national debate over whether easy access to firearms was contributing to the trend.
TRUMP BLAMES MENTAL HEALTH, NOT GUNS
US President Donald Trump on Monday called the mass shooting a “mental health problem,” not “a guns situation.”
Asked what policies he might support in response to the shooting at a press conference in Tokyo, Trump said that based on preliminary reports, the gunman was “a very deranged individual, a lot of problems.”
“We have a lot of mental health problems in our country, as do other countries. But this isn’t a guns situation,” he said. “Fortunately somebody else had a gun that was shooting in the opposite direction.
“This is a mental health problem at the highest level,” he said. “It’s a very, very sad event.”
Trump was speaking in Tokyo on the second day of a 12-day Asian swing expected to be dominated by North Korea and trade.
“Americans do what we do best, we pull together,” Trump said at the start of a meeting with business leaders. “We stand strong, so strong.”
He added federal authorities would help Texas in the aftermath of the shooting and that all of America was praying to God.
According to the witnesses, about 20 shots rang out at 11.30am (1.30am Singapore on Monday) during the church services, according to media reports. It was unclear how many worshippers were inside at the time.
After the shooting, the suspect sped away in a car and was soon cornered by sheriff’s deputies just outside of Wilson County in Guadalupe County, Wiley told Reuters. He did not know if the shooter died of a self-inflicted gunshot or was killed by deputies.
Connally Memorial Medical Centre in Floresville received eight patients, the hospital said in a statement, while Brooke Army Medical Centre at Fort Sam Houston received another eight.
At Connally, three people were treated and released, one is in critical condition and four were transferred to the University Hospital in San Antonio for a higher level of care.
The First Baptist Church is one of two houses of worship in Sutherland Springs, an area that is home to fewer than 900 residents, according the 2010 Census. There are also two gas stations and a Dollar General store in town.
The white-painted, one-story structure features a small steeple and a single front door. On Sunday, the Lone Star flag of Texas was flying alongside the US flag and a third, unidentified banner.
Inside there is a small raised platform on which members sang worship songs to guitar music and the pastor delivered a weekly sermon, according to videos posted on YouTube. In one of the clips, a few dozen people, including young children, can be seen sitting in the wooden pews.
The shooting occurred on the eighth anniversary of the Nov 5, 2009, massacre of 13 people at the Fort Hood Army base in central Texas. A US Army Medical Corps psychiatrist convicted of the killings is now awaiting execution.
In 2015, a white gunman killed nine black parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The gunman was sentenced to death for the racially motivated attack.
In September, a gunman killed a woman in the parking lot of a Tennessee church on Sunday morning and wounded six worshipers inside the building before shooting himself in a scuffle with an usher who rushed to stop the attack.