The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inside the Texas church, she thought it was her turn to die. Then outside, a man appeared.

Residents of Sutherland Springs, Tex., grappled with the mass shooting that took 26 lives from the community in November 2017. (Video: Alice Li/The Washington Post)
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As Farida Brown lay on the floor in the last row of pews in Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church, the 73-year-old woman felt certain she would be the next one killed.

And she almost was.

The gunman had fired numerous rounds into her legs. She was shot four times, but the bullets all struck soft tissue. None of her bones were broken, and no arteries were hit, her son said. But the man was revisiting those he had shot to make sure they were dead, and if they weren’t, he was shooting them once more.

Brown’s recollections of the horror that she and others in the church experienced, as told to her son, are among the first offered by one of the 20 wounded Sunday in the rampage that killed 26 churchgoers. The son, David Brown, told her story to reporters Monday, including CNN and The Washington Post.

The first inkling that there was something wrong, David Brown told The Post, was when she heard shots being fired through the windows from outside.

Then, when the gunman entered, Farida Brown heard the relentless pop-pop-popping as he opened fire on worshipers. She watched him shoot anyone who attempted to flee.

The Sunday school teacher to her right told her to get down on the floor. He then fled.

She told her son that the shooter paced back and forth, firing into the pews and shooting at cellphones anytime someone tried to call police. He shot at her phone at least three times.

As the gunman fired shots into the congregation, “everyone was running around trying to escape,” said David Brown, but most lay on the floor, hiding.

The gunman fired four shots into the torso of the woman on Farida Brown’s left, David Brown said.

“With every shot, she was crying,” he said of the woman. “She was just staring at my mom while she tried to comfort her.” As he fired rounds into the woman, Farida Brown held her hand, telling her she was heading to heaven.

Up to that point, Farida Brown had sustained only shots to her legs. But as the shooter fired into the woman next to her, she prepared to be slain.

“Then she thought that it was her turn,” David Brown told The Post. “She just started praying.”

The gunman has since been identified as Devin Patrick Kelley.

At that moment, she heard a shot fired from a different man, at the front door.

The scene after a shooting in a Texas church

Rev. Van Jordan, of Port Arthur, Tex., leads a group prayer while setting up crosses to honor the shooting victims along the edge of a field next to Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

The other man was Stephen Willeford, who lives near the church. Willeford, a certified shooting instructor, grabbed his own rifle and raced out of his house barefoot.

“I kept hearing the shots, one after another,” Willeford told 40/29 News, “very rapid shots, just ‘pop pop pop pop.’ and I knew every one of those shots represented someone, that it was aimed at someone, that they weren’t just random shots.

“He saw me, and I saw him,” Willeford told the station.

It was Willeford’s presence that distracted Kelley.

Willeford hit Kelley at least once, authorities said. Kelley then dropped his rifle, jumped in his Ford Expedition SUV and fled. Willeford, with the help of Johnnie Langendorff, who had stopped in his truck when he saw what was happening, gave chase at high speed, until Kelley’s car careened off the road into a ditch. Kelley was dead, with three gunshot wounds, including a self-inflicted shot to the head, authorities said Monday. Willeford apparently hit him in the leg and torso, according to Freeman Martin of the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Farida Brown survived.

She sustained bullet wounds and bullet fragments and shrapnel in her legs, groin and left hip.

David Brown first heard about the attack through a text message from his sister. “There’s been a shooting at Mom’s church,” the message read, he said. “She’s been shot.”

“What kind of a sick joke is this?” he said he thought.

He immediately packed a bag and drove from Houston to the hospital in Floresville, Tex., where his mother was undergoing surgery. Farida Brown emerged from surgery about 45 minutes after he arrived.

The next day, when she began to recover from surgery, she described the scene in further detail to Texas Rangers authorities and to hospital staff, with her son in the room, he said. She did not feel comfortable speaking to news outlets on Monday and asked her son to recount her experiences.

Two other survivors, Joaquin Ramirez and Joanne Solis, told KSAT that when the babies in the church cried, the gunman would shoot them point blank.

Solis was shot in the arm, near the front door, while Ramirez was struck by shrapnel.

“Everybody started screaming, yelling,” Solis told KSAT. “Everybody got down, under, wherever they could hide.”

They huddled on the ground, pretending they were dead, and watched as bullets hit the church’s carpeted floor.

“I hear firecrackers popping. Ta-ta-ta,” she recalled. “It was so scary. He was shooting hard.”

David Brown’s nephew, who arrived at the church shortly after the shooting, described it as “walking into a scene in a movie.”

“There were just dead bodies laying everywhere,” Brown said his nephew told him.

Farida Brown still does not know the identity of the woman on her left, her son said, nor whether she survived the shooting. She doesn’t know what happened to the Sunday school teacher after he fled the church.

“She’s wondering why none of her church friends have called,” David Brown said.

In many cases, it’s because they didn’t survive.

Farida Brown has been a member of First Baptist Church for about 10 years.

“She never misses a Sunday,” her son said. “All of her friends she hangs out with during the week all go to the church.”

Every Thursday morning, she helps serve a breakfast for a Bible study class at the church.

“She knows she was blessed,” David Brown said. “She told me she would have gladly taken 15 more shots to the legs” if it could have saved more lives, he said.

He said “it’s amazing” that his mother is already walking around with a walker. Her legs are still covered in bandages from ankle to hip, and her knee has “swollen up really big,” but Farida Brown should be released from the hospital by Tuesday, her son said.

“In two or three weeks she’ll be dancing again,” David Brown said.

More on the Texas shooting:

Sutherland Springs pastor: ‘I don’t understand, but I know my God does’

Death sweeps across 3 generations of a single family gathered at Texas church

Who is Devin Patrick Kelley, the gunman officials say killed churchgoers in Sutherland Spring?

An unlikely hero describes gun battle and 95 mph pursuit of Texas shooting suspect