LA VERNIA, Texas — By the time Paul Brunner rolled up in his ambulance to the worst mass shooting in Texas history, the First Baptist Church was a chaotic triage scene. Parents cried and kids screamed, and nearly all the victims appeared to have been hit more than once.
Two of the first four patients the burly volunteer medic loaded into ambulances were children.
"Our inclination is to protect children. The thing is, that wasn't his inclination," Brunner said, referring to the gunman. "He wasn't separating going: 'I'm not going to hurt the kids. I'm going to go after whatever adults wronged me.'"
When gunfire tore through the church in tiny Sutherland Springs, killing more than two dozen, the bullets claimed eight children and teenagers who were sitting through Sunday services with their families. It was the largest number of children killed in a mass shooting since 20 died at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
Like that massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, the fact that the assailant slaughtered defenseless children compounded the anguish. Nearby schools quickly added grief counselors.
The shooter, Devin Patrick Kelley, had a turbulent and violent past that included a court-martial while serving in the Air Force on charges that he assaulted his then-wife and hit her child hard enough to fracture the boy's skull. Kelley, who had a rifle and left behind at least 15 empty magazines holding 30 rounds each, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after he was chased by bystanders and crashed his car.
Investigators have said the shooting appeared to stem from a domestic dispute involving Kelley and his mother-in-law, who sometimes attended services at the church but was not present on Sunday.
One couple who survived the attack, Rosanne Solis and Joaquin Ramirez, said Kelley went aisle by aisle through the pews and shot crying children at point-blank range.
Authorities put the death count at 26, including the unborn baby of one of the slain women and the 14-year-old daughter of the church's pastor, Frank Pomeroy.
"There were just so many babies in there. It was a church. It was families," said Torie McCallum, the former sister-in-law of Crystal Holcombe, the pregnant woman. "Watching them take person after person after person out was so heartbreaking."
McCallum is also a volunteer medic in nearby Floresville who spent 12 hours at the scene Sunday. She identified Crystal and her three dead children — 11-year-old Emily, 13-year-old Greg and 9-year-old Megan.
Another of Crystal's children, 7-year-old Evelyn, ran out of the church to a neighbor's house. She suffered a head contusion, which McCallum thinks may have been caused by her head hitting a pew.
The kids were smart and liked church. Their father died six years earlier, but McCallum was relieved when John Holcombe entered the picture and helped raise them as his own.
They called him Dad and thrived in the 4-H Club. Emily liked archery while Greg, Evelyn and Megan did karate. Crystal homeschooled the children, and the girls sang in church, where the family got a kick out of how their different voices harmonized.
McCallum said the kids were excited for a new sibling and decided that the baby's name, whether a boy or girl, should be Billy Bob Wigglebottom — which they found hilarious.
The official list of those killed released by Texas authorities Wednesday included Carlin Brite "Billy Bob" Holcombe.
By Wednesday, an online fundraiser had collected more $72,000 for the family.
"To see seasoned FBI agents and seasoned paramedics and seasoned law enforcement officers, when you see their eyes red, I feel so awful for all of the people who responded to that scene. Because they should never have to see anything like that, especially with so many children," McCallum said.
One of the wounded children, 5-year-old Ryland Ward, was hit multiple times and opened his eyes at the hospital Tuesday for the first time since the shooting, said Leslie Ward, the boy's aunt.
"Seeing the children that were killed. It's one thing to see an adult, but to see a 5-year-old, that's tough," Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt said.
Alison Gould, 17, returned Wednesday to the church where she had waited hours on Sunday for word about her best friend, 16-year-old Haley Krueger. She got the news she feared later that night.5 comments on this story
"I am trying my best to cope. I want to see her really bad, and it's kind of hard because I know that I can't," Gould said. "Me and her mom keep thinking that maybe she's in the hospital, and they just identified her wrong. We're trying really hard."
Brunner, chief of the ambulance service in nearby La Vernia, had been at lunch with his own family when he heard about the shooting.
"You had parents screaming about their kids. They got stuff in front of them that they never imagined they would see in their life," Brunner said. "Not really a war zone, because at least people in a war know they're in the middle of a war. This is just hard to describe."