Texas church shooting leaves 26 dead

A gunman massacred at least 26 worshippers and wounded 20 others at a white-steepled church in south-east Texas on Sunday, carrying out the latest in a series of mass shootings that have plagued the United States, authorities said.

The lone suspect, wearing black tactical gear and a ballistic vest and carrying an assault rifle, opened fire after entering the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs in Wilson County, about 65 kilometres south-east of San Antonio.

The gunman opened fire outside the church and continued to fire as he entered.

The victims ranged in age from five to 72, law enforcement officials said at a news conference.

After the shooting, the gunman, described as a white man in his 20s, was fired on by a local resident. He fled in his vehicle and was later found dead in neighbouring Guadalupe County.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott said the mass shooting was the worst in modern Texas history.

He posted on Twitter: "Our prayers are with all who were harmed by this evil act. Our thanks to law enforcement for their response."

Police have not released a motive for the shooting.

Earlier, Wilson County Commissioner Albert Gamez, jnr, said that at least 27 were killed and more than 20 were injured.

Police told him the gunman was chased into the next county and was killed, but it was not clear whether the police shot him or he killed himself.

He added: "You never expect something like this. My heart is broken."

Gunman identified

The suspect in the Texas church mass shooting was a former member of the US military.

Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek says records confirm Devin P. Kelley served in Logistics Readiness at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico from 2010 until his discharge.

The date of his discharge and the circumstances under which he left the service were not immediately available.

The Pentagon has also confirmed Kelley was an airman "at one point", but didn't provide additional details.

Authorities in charge of the investigation into the shooting did not formally identify him at a press conference earlier on Sunday, except to say he was a white male in his 20s.

However, two officials - one a US official and the other in law enforcement - told The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity the shooter was Devin Kelley.

The US official said Kelly lived in a suburb of San Antonio and did not appear to be linked to organised terrorist groups.

Investigators are looking at social media posts Kelley may have made in the days before the attack, including one that appeared to show an AR-15 semi-automatic weapon.

Texas Democratic congressman Henry Cuellar said law enforcement authorities told him the gunman came from Comal County, which is north-east of San Antonio.

"He went there [to the church], he walked in, started shooting people and then took off [to Guadalupe County, just outside Wilson County]," Cuellar said.

Wilson County Commissioner Larry Wiley said that, after the shooting, the gunman sped away in a car and was soon cornered by sheriff's deputies in Guadalupe County.

He did not know if the gunman died of a self-inflicted gunshot or was killed by deputies.

First responders converged on the town and helicopters were taking victims to hospitals.

Ernest "Skip" Hajek, another Wilson County Commissioner, told The Washington Post that the gunman began firing from outside the church and continued to shoot as he entered.

Hajek said the gunman eventually drove away and was followed by a local resident who called 911 to report which way the gunman was fleeing.

"About four or five miles away, he pulled his car over," Hajek said of the gunman. "That's where the police found him dead."

Hajek said police were looking into whether the gunman's wounds were self-inflicted.

Federal authorities, including from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the FBI, were on the scene.

The Texas Ranger Division of the state's Department of Public Safety is also involved in the investigation.

Pastor's daughter killed

The teenage daughter of the pastor of the church was reportedly among the dead.

Sherri Pomeroy, wife of Pastor Frank Pomeroy, said in a text message to the Associated Press that she lost her daughter, Annabelle, 14, "and many friends" in the shooting.

Ms Pomeroy said both she and her husband were out of town when the church was attacked and were trying to return.

The First Baptist Church is a fixture in Sutherland Springs, an area home to fewer than 900 residents, according the 2010 census.

The white-painted, one-storey structure features a small steeple and a single front door. On Sunday, the Lone Star flag of Texas was flying alongside the US 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.

The service began with a rendition of a song called Happiness Is the Lord.

It was reported earlier that the pastor was in church and told his parishioners to walk around the room and "shake somebody's hand".

"Tell them it's good to see them in God's house this morning," he was reported to have said.

The church's website, which was down shortly after the shooting, says the church schedule was for a fellowship breakfast on Sunday mornings, followed by Sunday School.

A morning worship service was scheduled for 11am. The first news reports of the shooting were between noon and 12.30pm.

graphic

Community devastated

David Keen, a constable in Wilson County, confirmed there were casualties and said, "there were kids involved".

He said that the gunman was dead and that he did not know how many people had died.

Megan Posey, a spokeswoman for Connally Memorial Medical Centre in Floresville, Texas, said that she did not know how many patients the hospital had received, but that it was continuing to receive more.

The hospital had activated its emergency response team, she said.

Information about the conditions of patients was not available.

"We're sending more officers on the streets to help secure Connally Memorial while they're bringing the casualties to the hospital," Keen said.

Officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are on the scene.

Photos taken by local media showed several police and emergency vehicles, as well as helicopters, outside the church.

A video shared on Twitter by a KSAT reporter showed people crying and holding hands as they waited to find out whether their loved ones were safe.

A parishioner, Sandy Ward, said in an interview on Sunday that a daughter-in-law and three of her grandchildren were shot. Her grandson, who is five, was shot four times and remained in surgeryon Sunday night. She said she was awaiting word on her other family members.

Ward said she did not attend services on Sunday because of her troubled knees and a bad hip. "I just started praying for everybody who was there," she said.

Diana Segura, 69, was in the shower on Sunday morning about 11am when she was startled by a series of thundering bangs so loud she thought a truck's engine had exploded on the highway behind her home.

Minutes later, sirens burst onto her quiet street and Segura walked outside and saw the unthinkable: multiple bodies on the ground outside the First Baptist Church, where she occasionally attends weeknight services.

Standing outside her home down the street from the church, Segura stared at the throng of police cars and emergency vehicles, her head shaking in disbelief.

"This is a small town and nothing never happens here," Segura said. "We are family here, and that church is always filled with friends."

Joseph Silva, 49, who lives about seven kilometres north-east of Sutherland Springs, said the police had instructed his family and neighbours to stay indoors.

In a phone interview on Sunday afternoon, he described Sutherland Springs as "a one-blinking-light town".

"There is a gas station and a post office," he said. "That's about all there really is."

Silva said he had been approached by a woman who said she had two loved ones at the church who were shot.

"There are a number of individuals just weeping and just wanting to know what's happened to their loved ones," he said. "Everybody is pretty grief-stricken. Everyone's worried."

US President Donald Trump, on a visit to Japan, tweeted his concern, saying he was "monitoring the situation".

Rash of massacres

The massacre is the latest in a rash of mass shootings that have plagued the United States in recent years, stirring a national debate over whether easy access to firearms was contributing to the trend.

It comes just weeks after a sniper killed 58 people at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history.

The shooting occurred on the eighth anniversary of the massacre of 13 people at the Fort Hood army base in central Texas on November 5, 2009. A US Army Medical Corps psychiatrist convicted of the killings is now awaiting execution.

In 2015, a white gunman killed nine black parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The gunman was sentenced to death for the racially motivated attack.

AP, New York Times, Washington Post, Reuters

More to come

This story Texas church shooting leaves 26 dead first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.