Five-year-old Ryland Ward has a mischievous smile that belies his sweet nature. He likes to pretend he’s driving, and even started up the truck once when no one was looking, his uncle Michael remembers.
The only thing that kept his nephew from taking off that day was that his little legs couldn’t yet reach the pedals. Michael chuckles, a strained laugh. But his smile tightens as he describes what happened Sunday morning.
Just after morning services, a gunman entered the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs and opened fire. At least 26 were killed in this small town of just more than 600 people, and dozens more were wounded.
One was Ryland.
Michael carried his nephew out of the church that morning, just minutes after the shooting stopped. Ryland’s mother and two of his sisters were shot too, and the boy had four gunshot wounds to his stomach, groin and arm, said Michael. He was still awake, but wasn’t talking, by the time a helicopter took him to University Hospital in San Antonio.
“It’s unreal at first,” Michael Ward, 31, told The Dallas Morning News on Sunday afternoon. Sitting at the kitchen table, he struggled to understand what had just happened. “The church of all places.”
Sutherland Springs is so small you’d miss it if you didn’t already know it was there. Cuddling U.S. Highway 87, it sits in an unincorporated part of Wilson County about 20 miles outside San Antonio.
Driving south into town, you notice the churches — Amazing Grace Baptist Church, Calvary Cowboy Fellowship and New Life Fellowship, just off Angel Lane. The highway is filled with them, these little churches and the little towns that huddle around them.
First Baptist Church is the center of Sutherland Springs, too, a small, low building with a blue and white sign out front. The congregation is small — just like the town — but everyone here either attends First Baptist or knows someone who does.
On any particular Sunday, about 50 people could be found there. On this morning, half didn’t leave after a gunman wearing black opened fire as services were ending.
Michael Ward’s house is just a few blocks from the church, the one with the big American flag and fence he starting building last year. Leslie Ward, his wife, was setting up a yard sale when she heard the first shots Sunday morning.
“Bam bam bam bam!” the shots came so fast, Leslie said, it sounded like something from a machine gun. Word sped fast in the small town — there was a shooter and he was inside the church.
She ran inside and woke a napping Michael. His brother Chris, whose family often attends services there, wasn’t answering his phone so the two hopped in the car and sped to his house to check they were safe.
“He was pissed at me,” Michael said. His brother didn’t think it could be true — not in their small town. He thought Michael must be wrong, he had to be mistaken. Chris works the night shift and had stayed home that morning, but his wife and children were at the church. “I said, ‘I’m not lying to you, Chris, they’re all shot.’”
Chris ran from the house toward the church, leaving his shoes behind.
In the first hours after the shooting Sunday, some media erroneously reported Chris Ward was the shooter. Michael said his brother wasn’t angry about the mistake, he was too worried about his family to care.
Some of the Ward family gathered on the front porch Sunday night, chatting with neighbors. Others sat around the kitchen table, eating free food from the community center across the street.
Michael, sitting next to his 9-year-old daughter McKinley, inhales his burger and chips. His phone rings. It’s Chris.
A bullet shot the eyeglasses off the face of Chris’ eldest daughter, but she was unharmed. Michael looks relieved, animated, hardly pausing between questions. Then he stops cold.
Brooke Ward and Emily Garza, Michael’s 5-year-old and 7-year old nieces, died, Michael and Leslie say. Their mother, Joann Ward, is also dead, says Leslie. They aren’t sure what will happen to Ryland, who had sustained serious wounds.
Michael begins to tear up. It’s the first time he’s really broken down since morning.
Michael and Leslie thank God their daughter skipped services that day. She usually attends with her grandmother or grandfather. What a strange blessing, they said.
“We were going to go to church, me and McKinley,” said Lupe Ragalado, Leslie’s mother. “I guess God said, ‘Don’t go.’”
Late Sunday night, McKinley stood alone in the kitchen and wept. She’d lost two cousins but one was still hanging on: “Ryland is the only one left.”
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