Sutherland Springs, Texas (Reuters): A gunman dressed in black tactical gear massacred at least 26 worshipers and wounded 20 others at a white-steepled church in Texas on Sunday, carrying out the latest in a series of mass shootings that have plagued the United States.
The lone suspect, also wearing a ballistic vest and carrying a Ruger assault rifle, fired into the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs and kept shooting after he went inside. Sutherland Springs is in Wilson County, about 40 miles (65 km) east of San Antonio.
The victims ranged in age from 5 to 72 years old, law enforcement officials told a news conference. Among the dead was the 14-year-old daughter of Pastor Frank Pomeroy, the family told several television stations.
After the shooting, the gunman, described as a white man in his 20s, was fired on by a local resident with a rifle. The suspect dropped his assault weapon, and fled in his vehicle, said Freeman Martin, regional director of the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Soon afterward, the suspect crashed his vehicle near the border of neighboring Guadalupe County and was found dead inside with a cache of weapons.
It was not immediately clear if the suspect killed himself or was hit when the resident fired at him outside the church, 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.”
The suspect’s identity was not disclosed by authorities, but law enforcement officials who asked not to be named said he was Devin Patrick Kelley, described as a white, 26-year-old man, the New York Times and other media reported.
“We don’t think he had any connection to this church,” Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt told CNN. “We have no motive.”
‘ACT OF EVIL’
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 came just weeks after a sniper killed 58 people at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. The shootings have stirred a years-long national debate over whether easy access to firearms was contributing to the trend.
President Donald Trump said he was monitoring the situation while in Japan on a 12-day Asian trip.
“This act of evil occurred as the victims and their families were in their place of sacred worship,” the president said. “Through the tears and through the sadness we stand strong, oh so strong.”
According to the witnesses, about 20 shots rang out at 11:30 a.m. (1730 GMT) during the church services, according to media reports. It was unclear how many worshipers were inside at the time.
Connally Memorial Medical Center in Floresville received eight patients, the hospital said in a statement, while Brooke Army Medical Center 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 home to fewer than 900 residents, according to 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 U.S. 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.