Inside the Heartbreak and Resilience of the Tiny Texas Town Shattered by Church Mass Shooting

The town of Sutherland Springs, Texas, has only a few hundred residents — the kind of place so small that the mass shooting there on Sunday was shattering

The town of Sutherland Springs, Texas, has only a few hundred residents — the kind of place so small that Sunday morning’s mass shooting at a local church didn’t just shock, it shattered.

“It kind of makes your heart drop,” resident Sarah Fuertez tells PEOPLE. “You are taken aback. … You don’t think it would happen out here, that it would hit so close to home. I see something like this in a bigger city — it makes you wonder what is really safe. If we aren’t safe out here, where are we safe?”

According to historical records, there was one store and one post office in Sutherland Springs in 1989, and 362 people lived there in 2000. Fuertez says there are less than 800 people living there now, and the town has no stoplights.

At least 26 people were killed and another 20 injured in Sunday’s attack, according to authorities.

The victims, most of them likely locals, were as young as 18 months and as old as 77.

While names and identities have not been confirmed, reports have surfaced of entire families nearly wiped out. The shooting victims make up “a substantial number of the population” of the town, Fuertez says.

Witness and longtime resident Kathleen Curnow told PEOPLE that an 8-year-old girl survived while several of her relatives were killed.

The site of the the gunman’s rampage, during a worship service at the First Baptist Church, heightens the pain of the massacre, according to Fuertez: “The churches around here, they are very big part of the social aspect. We don’t have that much in this town for the townsfolk to gather in a family environment, so the focal point tends to be the community center or the churches.”

“For a lot of people the church was a place of worship but also a place to get to know your neighbors, see friends and get together with family in a family environment,” she continues.

“This is just a small rural farming community,” county commissioner Ernest Hajek told PEOPLE. “It isn’t really a town. A small church with 40 or 50 congregants at each service — it doesn’t make any sense.”

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Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman/AP
Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP

Scott Holcombe, 30, and his 33-year-old sister, Sarah Slavin, lost both of their parents in the attack, they told the New York Times.

Their father was a guest preacher during the shooting because the church’s usual preacher, Frank Pomeroy, was traveling. Still, Pomeroy’s teenage daughter, Annabelle, was in attendance and was one of those killed — as was Holcombe’s pregnant sister-in-law, according to the Times.

Kathleen Curnow lives across the street from the church and called 911 as the carnage unfolded. Echoing the everyday connections that now bind her neighbors in grief, she told the Today show that until Sunday’s shooting ended her life, Annabelle would “always come to the house.”

“The devastation for these families, many of these families that I’ve known all my life, it’s unbelievable,” Curnow tells PEOPLE.

“I’m dumbfounded,” Holcombe told the Times. “This is unimaginable. My father was a good man, and he loved to preach. He had a good heart.”

“They weren’t afraid of death,” Slavin said of their parents. “They had a strong faith, so there’s comfort in that. I feel like my parents, especially my mom, [weren’t] scared.”

In the face of the town’s trauma, there is resilience and courage. Fuertez says people came in support around the community center where the victims’ families had gathered Sunday, bringing ice chests and food — even a barbecue pit.

“Sutherland Springs is trying to get everyone taken care of,” she says. “Right now everyone is trying to work through the grief.”

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Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman/AP

Johnnie Langendorff was just passing by the church on Sunday when he crossed the path of the shooter, later identified as 26-year-old Devin Kelley.

Investigators said Monday is appears Kelley was motivated, in part, by a domestic dispute with his wife’s family, who attended the church. Langendorff told PEOPLE he watched as another local man, who was also armed, engaged the gunman after Sunday’s shooting before the attacker fled.

The other man jumped into Langendorff’s vehicle and they gave chase. Shortly thereafter, the shooter was found dead of a gunshot wound.

The goal of their pursuit, Langendorff said, was “to get this guy. You don’t shoot up anywhere and get away with it.”

“It doesn’t matter your race, what you do for a living, male or female, what your religion or ethnicity [is], if you need something, we just come together,” Curnow said on Today, “and it’s always how it’s been.”

• With reporting by ELAINE ARADILLAS

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