Services were wrapping up late Sunday morning at a small Nashville-area church when a gunman pulled into the parking lot, stepped out of his blue SUV and, minutes later, opened fire. His first victim was Melanie Crow Smith, a 39-year-old who had just emerged from Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Antioch, Tenn.
Inside the brick building, panicked churchgoers dived under pews and barricaded themselves in the bathroom.
“Run! Run! Gunshots!” pastor David Spann yelled, according to the Associated Press.
The gunman, wearing a neoprene mask, soon stormed through the doors of the church sanctuary and began firing again, police said. Armed with two handguns, he struck six more people inside, all in their 60s or older — including the pastor and his wife.
Then, Robert Caleb Engle, a 22-year-old usher at the church whom a friend described as a “gentle giant,” intervened.
Engle would later tell a friend that he thought he had his handgun on him as he charged at the shooter. In fact, he was unarmed, his firearm still in his car in the church parking lot.
It’s unclear exactly how long Engle physically confronted the masked gunman. During their struggle, Engle was pistol-whipped, police said. At some point in the altercation, the shooter’s gun went off and he was hit with a bullet in the left chest.
This was Engle’s chance.
“Engle, despite his head injuries, ran out to his car in the parking lot and retrieved a pistol,” Nashville police said in a statement. “He held [the gunman] at gunpoint until police arrived.”
By the time the first officer arrived, at 11:20 a.m., six people had been injured in the shooting: William Jenkins, 83; Marlene Jenkins, 84; Spann, 66; Peggy Spann, 65; Linda Bush, 68; and Katherine Dickerson, 64.
Smith, the woman who was shot in the parking lot, died at the scene, police said.
Police later identified the shooting suspect as 25-year-old Emanuel Kidega Samson.
Samson, a Sudanese native and legal U.S. resident who had attended the church in the past, was treated for the accidental gunshot wound at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, then taken into custody. Samson was later charged with murder and attempted murder.
Nashville police hailed Engle’s quick thinking and bravery.
“It would appear [the gunman] was not expecting to encounter a brave individual like the church usher,” police spokesman Don Aaron told reporters Sunday.
Engle’s actions probably prevented more bloodshed, Police Chief Steve Anderson told the Tennessean. Police said there were 42 people at the church at the time of the shooting, according to the newspaper.
“Mr. Engle suffered severe injuries himself — not a gunshot, but from being beaten with a pistol,” Anderson said. “He’s the hero here. He’s the person that stopped this madness in its tracks.”
Those who knew Engle described him as a selfless person whose actions didn’t surprise them.
“He’s 6-foot-5, a really big guy, but a gentle giant,” Blake Langford, 21, told the AP. “He’s always been that kind of person to put others before himself.”
Engle’s grandmother Rheta Engle told the Tennessean that she was “very, very proud” of her grandson.
“That’s like him. He’s just someone who cares about a lot of people,” she told the newspaper. “He has all their feelings at heart.”
Police said Engle was treated for his injuries and released from the hospital Sunday. Before he was discharged, though, he issued a statement saying he didn’t want to be labeled a hero. Instead, he asked people who were concerned about what had happened at the church to pray for everyone involved — including the shooter.
“I ask everyone to pray for the victims, family members of the victims, our church community. Please pray for healing,” Engle said. “Also, please pray for the shooter, the shooter’s family and friends. They are hurting as well.”