SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas — Members of the First Baptist Church prepared to hold a church service Sunday for the first time since a gunman went on a shooting rampage one week ago that left more than two dozen dead.
Hundreds of people were expected to join the congregants at 11 a.m. local time for the service, which will be held at a baseball park to accommodate the crowd. The church was heavily damaged in the shooting, although members and the public will be allowed to enter the building Sunday afternoon to pay their respects to those who died there.
The plan is to later demolish the building and possibly set up a memorial.
The service comes a day after the first funerals were held for victims of the shooting. First Baptist Pastor Frank Pomeroy led the service for two of the 25 victims, who included a woman who was pregnant.
“There’s going to be tears,” said Pomeroy, whose 14-year-old daughter, Annabelle, was also killed when Devin Kelley opened fire on worshipers Nov 5.
Saturday's events, which included a memorial, were particularly painful as they fell on Veteran's Day. Half the victims had connections to the Air Force. Kelley had been in the Air Force, but was kicked out due to bad conduct after pleading guilty to assaulting his former wife and her son.
Air Force officials failed to flag Kelley's record, which would have made him unable to buy the high-powered weapon he used in the attack.
As the events started to get underway Saturday, about 100 people gathered outside the Sutherland Springs community center, sitting on folding chairs or standing amid red-white-and-blue bunting.
A color guard from St. Mary's ROTC presented the colors. A wreath was placed near flags honoring those slain. First responders and law enforcement officers stood in a circle, with heads bowed in prayer.
Wilson County Judge Richard Jackson’s voice broke as he thanked the emergency workers who rushed to the church to treat the wounded in a scene that will affect them the rest of their lives.
Jackson, the county’s top official, said he hoped the ceremony will start a healing process “to put this horrific tragedy behind us and look to the future.”
The Air Force chief of staff, Gen. David Goldfein, has said that 12 of those slain in the church had direct connections to the Air Force, “either members or with family ties.”
The victims included the Rodriguez couple, a husband and wife who had met in the service more than 30 years earlier.
“I hope that this is the start of the healing that everyone here needs,” Jackson told the USA Today Network. “That county has been in turmoil, and for a lot of folks, complete healing might never come. But it has to start, and that’s what I hope happened just now.”
Mortiz reports for the Corpus Christi (Texas) Caller Times. Contributing: Marco della Cava, USA TODAY; the Associated Press