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‘Most of our church family is gone’: A Sunday service ends in blood and heartbreak

People attend a vigil in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday.
(EPA/Shutterstock )

Farida Brown was sitting in church like she does every Sunday. Then gunshots blasted through the windows.

Brown, 73, and everybody around her dropped to the floor as a man carrying a rifle and wearing all black came into view and began showering bullets on the congregants.

Some ran in an effort to escape the slaughter. Brown stayed on the ground in the last pew. Somehow she survived when 26 others did not.

The killer “walked up and down the aisles repeatedly shooting everyone laying on the ground for cover,” said Brown’s son, David, relaying the account she gave him. “She said he kept pacing up and down, making sure everybody was dead.”

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When he got to Brown’s row, he repeatedly shot the woman next to her as Brown gripped her hand. Then he left.

Her account is one of the few that have emerged from inside the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, one of several houses of worship in this town of fewer than 1,000 people along state Highway 87. Officials have not said how many were in the sanctuary on Sunday morning, but it appears that few people escaped without bullet wounds.

“The scene in there is horrific. [There’s] not even a word to describe it,” FBI Special Agent Christopher Combs said Monday during a televised news conference.

Those killed ranged in age from 18 months to 77 years, authorities said Monday. Of the 20 who were injured, more than a dozen remained in critical or serious condition.

“I don’t know how many people were in the church, but a lot of them didn’t make it out alive,” said Texas state Rep. John Kuempel, a Republican from nearby Seguin.

Videos of recent Sunday services that the church posts on its website show attendance is usually about 30 to 50 people.

Recent footage shows girls scurrying past adults through the wooden pews, their sweaters bright spots against the white walls.

A three-person band belted out spirituals. “God is good, all the time, through the darkest night his light will shine,” went one verse.

The 30 or so congregants — many of them children — hugged or shook each other’s hands.

“We were a very close family,” Sherri Pomeroy, the wife of Pastor Frank Pomeroy, said of the congregation in a televised news conference Monday. She and her husband were both out of town when the attack happened. Their daughter, 14-year-old Annabelle, was killed.

“We ate together, we laughed together, we cried and we worshiped together,” Sherri Pomeroy said. “Now most of our church family is gone. Our building is probably beyond repair…. Our sweet Belle would not have been able to deal with losing so much family yesterday.”

Many in Sutherland Springs, which is 30 miles southeast of San Antonio, have ties to the church, whether or not they regularly attended services.

Congregants would stream into Baldy’s Diner after church.

“The kids from that church come in and they’re polite, nice kids,” said the owner, Debbie Bugarin, 32. “It’s just, just so raw. We’re all raw.”

“I know about a half-dozen people who died,” said a waitress, Sherri Ilniski, 63.

“Everybody who lives here is a good Christian; everybody at that church is a good Christian,” she said. “This is just the best little community in the whole wide world. You’d never think something like that would happen here.”

At least 100 people, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, gathered Sunday evening for a candlelight vigil near the church. They cried, hugged and prayed.

By 7 a.m. Monday, mourners had been replaced by dozens of reporters from all over the world.

Townsfolk were trying to preserve the close-knit community they cherish.

On Sunday afternoon, law enforcement officers had cordoned off several blocks surrounding the church and set up a gathering area for family and friends of victims in a community building around the corner. “This building reserved for family members, pastors and close friends in order to keep order and peacefulness,” read a sign outside the building.

First Baptist Church’s Facebook page features recaps of sermons from “Pastor Frank” with messages like “Put the Cell Phone Down” and “You Can’t Witness to Someone You Look Down On.”

There are also posts about community, including Halloween photographs of a family in shark costumes and children dressed as fairies, cows and unicorns.

Now those photos are filled with comments from around the U.S., of people sending prayers from Florida, from Louisiana, from New York.

Brown and her family may never know why she is still alive.

It wasn’t until she stood that she realized that she too had been shot.

On Monday, she was recovering from surgery. Her son said she had been shot four times in her legs and was still in pain.

Times staff writer Matt Pearce contributed to this report.

Reach Sonali Kohli at Sonali.Kohli@latimes.com or on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli.


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