“Seven minutes of terror: A small Texas church attacked as parishioners worshipped”

San Antonio Express-News  
November 05, 2017


Shortly after 11 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 5, a former military man bearing an assault rifle and dressed in black tactical gear and a ballistic vest stormed into the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, shooting first from the outside and then again upon entering the packed worship hall. For seven minutes, Devin Patrick Kelley stalked the small sanctuary, aiming at the pews, firing as he walked up and down the aisles.

“Everybody die!” he shouted, as congregants huddled on the floor, arms over their heads.

When he was done, 26 people would be dead and another 20 injured. News of the massacre – the worst in modern Texas history – spread quickly on Twitter. A San Antonio Express-News digital producer immediately posted a breaking news alert and began making calls. At that point, it became an all-hands-on-deck breaking news situation.

Several staffers were dispatched to the tiny wisp of a community, about 30 miles east of San Antonio, including a deeply sourced federal courts reporter. Quickly, the Express-News exclusively reported that the shooter was a former Air Force airman who had been dishonorably discharged after he was convicted of assaulting his wife and stepson. But his conviction never appeared on the National Criminal Information Center database, which would have prevented him from legally purchasing firearms.

Over the next 24 hours, the Express-News was the first to report about search warrants at the killer’s home and of his cell phone, plus key interviews with witnesses and residents. Stories that emerged that first day included a quickly reported tick-tock, interviews with survivors and residents, and compelling stories about the shooter’s military history and criminal background. Within a couple days, Express-News reporters earned the trust of residents and were invited into their homes and to community meetings. One reporter had access to a key event – the memorial service – that no other outlet had.

The first 24 hours included a mix of traditional reporting – phone calls, in-person interviews, canvassing neighborhoods – and crowd sourcing via Twitter, Facebook and online comments to Express-News stories. At the scene, reporters live Tweeted news conferences and filed several Facebook Live videos. Staff videographers, too, created two videos that day, one of an impromptu vigil and the other an interview with a congregant who hadn’t gone to church that morning.

Unlike other huge tragedies of the past year, our reporting showed that the Sutherland Springs attack could have been prevented with a simple, legally-mandated action – a military-wide problem now corrected. How do you stop a Hurricane Harvey? Or, as in Las Vegas, a millionaire shooter without any criminal background or sign of mental illness?

This is a story that continues for Sutherland Springs and the Express-News, evident in the paper’s long-term commitment to chronicling survivors who mourn and mend. It took an entire newsroom working tirelessly, many of them 18-hour days without complaint, to stitch together what happened inside that church. What emerged was a tragic tale of a gunman who never should’ve been allowed to purchase firearms and a tranquil community that will never again be the same.

More than a single note, the Express-News’ coverage was symphonic in its unduplicated breadth and complexity.

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Submitted by Jamie Stockwell.

Headliners Foundation