Eight people - across 3 generations - of a single family killed at Texas church
"God will see us through," said great-grandfather Joe Holcombe, who lost 8 people from his extended family and an unborn child.
Houses of worship are among the few places left where families regularly gather together, sometimes extended and sometimes across many generations. The First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, is no different. And within those walls, gathered as they always are on Sunday mornings, were three generations of the Holcombe.
Bryan Holcombe was walking up to the pulpit on Sunday, preparing to lead the audience in worship, when a gunman began to spray bullets at the congregation.
Holcombe, an associate pastor for the church, was killed in the gunfire, his parents, Joe and Claryce Holcombe, said in an interview with the Washington Post.
Bryan Holcombe's wife of about four decades, Karla Holcombe, was also in church Sunday. She died too, said Joe Holcombe.
Bryan and Karla had a son, Marc Daniel Holcombe, 36. He, too, was killed, Joe Holcombe said.
Marc Daniel had an infant daughter, named Noah Holcombe, who, according to Joe, was a year old. She is dead too.
Another son of Bryan and Karla, John Holcombe, is alive, said Joe.
But his wife, Crystal Holcombe, is dead. Crystal Holcombe was pregnant. She and the unborn child were both killed. Crystal had five children. Three of them, Emily, Megan and Greg, died.
She had been at church with her husband, John, who thankfully survived along with two of her children.
That's eight members of the extended Holcombe family dead, in addition to the unborn child. All at once, Joe and Claryce Holcombe lost children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and a future great-grandchild.
The act of violence that wiped out generations of their loved ones took place in the space that mattered to them most: their church. The Holcombes were among the 26 people authorities say died in Sunday's mass shooting, the worst in Texas history.
As the morning stretched to afternoon and evening, friends and family members in South Texas posted on Facebook, asking if anyone had heard from their loved ones. Joe and Claryce Holcombe first heard about the shooting an hour after it happened, through a phone call from a member of the church they attend, a different Baptist church in nearby Floresville, Texas.
"He said there was a big shooting and he didn't say much more than that," Joe Holcombe, 86, said.
Then, in a conversation with the church's head pastor, they started to hear the wrenching news.
"Bryan and Karla?" Joe Holcombe asked the church's pastor.
"They're both in heaven," the pastor responded. As the day went on, they would learn of the others.
John Holcombe, who teaches Sunday school and runs the audio for Sunday services at First Baptist Church, was struck with shrapnel in his leg, he told Joe and Claryce Holcombe by phone later that day. His daughter remained hospitalized Sunday night, though mostly for observation, Joe Holcombe said. She was injured when another person fell on her, Claryce Holcombe said. Their grandparents described them as "fantastic" parents, and a "happy family."
Crystal Holcombe home-schooled her five children and was heavily involved in the church, like the rest of the family. On Facebook, she reported proudly of her children's successes in competitions for their local 4H Club and wrote about a recent bake sale in which the girls participated, benefiting families affected by Hurricane Harvey. Her husband, John, posted frequently about his lesson plans for Sunday school. For this week's lesson, he planned to focus on Exodus 16, he wrote in a Facebook post. It describes how God provided the Israelites with food as they traveled for 40 days in the desert, "Manna from heaven."
Bryan Holcombe was filling in Sunday for the church's lead pastor, who was out of town when the shooting happened. And according to his parents, the associate pastor has been involved in church work ever since he was young.
"We knew when he was born, that he was going to be a preacher," Joe Holcombe, his father, told the Post. "His first word was God." His first sentence? "See the light."
On Facebook, Bryan Holcombe is shown hoisting his grandchildren on his shoulders, dressing up in costumes for church events, and playing his ukulele. He would often play the instrument and sing for prison inmates, a relative told the Associated Press.
"Grandkids, it doesn't get any better!" Bryan Holcombe wrote on Facebook on one photo of his many grandchildren. "I'll wake up at night and, in prayer, thank God for each of them … it takes a while:-)"
He and his wife Karla lived near his parents, between Floresville and Sutherland Springs. He ran a business on his parents' farm, making tarps for cattle trailers, Joe Holcombe said. Bryan and Karla Holcombe were high school sweethearts. One day, their high school was selling roses, offering to deliver them to the classrooms of admirers. So Bryan Holcombe delivered a rose to each and every one of Karla's classes that day.
"He thought she was cute, and she was," Joe Holcombe said.
Karla Holcombe had the "gift of hospitality," her mother-in-law said. She had planned on hosting the family's Thanksgiving.
Joe and Claryce Holcombe, who are both retired teachers, hosted a group of nearby pastors and churchgoers at their home on Sunday as they waited for details about the deceased. They prayed together.
"It's of course going to be difficult," Joe Holcombe said about the days ahead. But, he said, "we are Christians, we have read the book. We know the ending, and it's good."
"They're in heaven," he added. "And they're a lot better off than we are."
The shooting at First Baptist Church shattered scores of other families in this rural, tight-knit community. Frank Pomeroy, the pastor of First Baptist Church, told ABC News that he did not attend the church service but that his teenage daughter, Annabelle Pomeroy, 14, was killed.
"She was very quiet, shy, always smiling, and helpful to all," Cynthia Rangel, 50, a resident of Stockdale, said of Annabelle Pomeroy. Rangel, a local emergency medical technician, said she knew three individuals who were hospitalized after the shooting and were undergoing surgery. "This just all seems like it's not real."
As Michael Ward pulled wounded congregants out of the church, he searched for his nephew, three nieces, and his sister-in-law, the San Antonio Express-News reported.
"My nephew was outside with four bullets in him," he said of Rylind Ward, 5.
"And Rhianna, the bullet broke her glasses, and broke 'em off, and she said she hid underneath the pew and didn't get hit," he said of his 9-year-old niece.
Sandy Ward told MSNBC that her 5-year-old grandson was in surgery, and her 7-year-old granddaughter was killed.
She waited at the hospital Sunday with her son.
"He's a wreck, of course, as you can imagine," Ward told MSNBC. "I'm just in shock."
"I'm numb," she added. "My whole body's just numb."
Joe and Claryce Holcombe said they're still coming to terms with what happened. The shooter, Joe Holcombe said, is "being rewarded right now for what he did, and for all of eternity."
But, Claryce added: "We need to pray for his family, because they're going through a terrible time, too."
"God will see us through," Joe Holcombe said. "We'll all be together soon."