An Officer’s Account of the Deadliest Church Shooting in Modern American History

On November 5, 2017, the deadliest mass shooting in Texas and the fifth deadliest in the United States occurred at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. A male subject fatally shot and killed 26 fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, grandparents, and one unborn child, and severely wounded 20 others during Sunday morning worship. At 11:20 a.m., this monster walked up to the church with a semi-automatic rifle, shot two people outside the church, and once inside, proceeded up and down the center aisle, shooting people in the pews, pausing only to reload his rifle. He fired approximately 700 rounds during the 11-minute bloodbath. With deep emotion in his voice, La Vernia Police Officer, Hank Fahnert, who was first on the scene with his Sergeant and a few other law enforcement officers, was kind enough to speak with Guard911® and share his experience and what he feels could have saved more lives – faster notification time and dissemination of accurate, real-time information.

What Was Missing: Dissemination of Accurate Information

Officer Fahnert was on duty that Sunday morning in November when he received the call. As he grabbed his rifle and donned on his body armor and helmet, his off-duty Sergeant drove up. Officer Fahnert told him about the shooter at the Sutherland Springs Baptist Church (which was about seven miles away), so the Sergeant grabbed his tactical gear and they drove to the church immediately. At this point, they had no idea what was really happening at the church. Officer Fahnert said, “In a dynamic situation such as this, dissemination of timely, accurate information is not there. We had people telling us the shooter was still there. We had reports of multiple shooters. One report said the shooter left on FM 539, which ended up being accurate, but we didn’t know that at the time. So, we decided to go directly to the church and assess the threat there. If the church had Guard911, we would have had the accurate, real-time information needed to make the best decisions possible.”

Active Shooter Training Kicked In

Officer Fahnert and his Sergeant arrived at the church simultaneously with the Sherriff Deputy and Game Warden and saw that the back door was ajar. They did not know if the killer was still inside, so they had to approach cautiously. Once inside, they cleared a small room and entered the main worship hall. Recounting that horrific moment, he said, “We could easily tell which bodies were deceased but had to keep moving. We heard nothing but pure silence. The smell of gunpowder and the strong stench of blood were overwhelming. This is when the power of my training kicked in. “The old saying, ‘if you don’t rise to the occasion, you will fall to the level of your training’ was never truer than at that moment. In active shooter school, they tell you not to focus on the bodies. To keep moving, clear your area, and focus on the job. What they don’t tell you is how hard that is. It was a nightmare. I was thankful that my active shooter training kicked in and took over because at no time was I unsure about what to do.”

As Soon as Law Enforcement Entered, Nobody Else Died

As soon as they finished clearing the building to ensure the shooter was not there, the parishioners realized they were safe and started verbally communicating. Officers triaged those who could be saved while awaiting medics. (Keep in mind, this is all happening in mere seconds). Seeing a fifteen-year-old girl shot in the torso and leg between the pews, Officer Fahnert picked up the pew and moved it, and worked to save her life. After using a tourniquet and chest seals to stop the bleeding, medics arrived and took her away. She ended up surviving. (He also found out later the pew he moved had been bolted to the floor!). Officer Fahnert continued his search for survivors and came upon a seventeen-year-old boy who had been shot seven times and had a near-traumatic gunshot amputation of his left arm. He used a tourniquet to stop the bleeding and triaged the boy until medics could get to him. Thanks to the amazing medical care and trauma centers in nearby San Antonio, he lived and now has full use of his left arm. “One of the things that helps me get through the emotional turmoil of this horrific tragedy, and one of the lessons here is that as soon as we entered the church, nobody else died. Everybody who was injured – no matter how badly – survived. If we had known about the shooting faster, who knows how many more could’ve been saved,” Officer Fahnert said.

Using a Drone to Save Officers’ Lives – Priceless, Real-Time Information

As Officer Fahnert and medics were working to save people, he learned they had found the shooter on FM 539 and they needed backup, so he headed for the shooter’s location. When he arrived, law enforcement had the smoking vehicle surrounded but they didn’t know exactly where the shooter was, or if he was dead or alive. One of the deputies had a drone in his car, so they flew it into the suspect’s open truck window and saw that he was there and appeared dead. That real-time information was priceless. Officer Fahnert said, “If someone on your force has a drone, use it. It will keep officers safe. We were in a situation where we didn’t know where the shooter was. He could’ve been hiding in the bushes and ambushed us while we were in an area without cover. After using the drone, we could approach the vehicle with confidence and confirm that he was deceased.” He was found with two gunshot wounds sustained by a Good Samaritan as he fled the church and one self-inflicted shot to the head.

Notification Time & Response Time – Critical to Saving Lives

If companies, schools, churches, daycare centers, and other organizations are considering panic button technology, like Guard911, but haven’t adopted it yet, Officer Fahnert gave some great advice. He said, “In this case, most of the responding officers were off duty and called by friends, family members, neighbors, or they saw it on social media. And none of the information they had to work with was true. Dissemination of accurate, real-time information is the key to saving lives. If law enforcement can get correct information faster, then we’ll be better equipped to manage the situation. Guard911 and the Hero911® network provide real-time, accurate information and speed up notification and response times, which is critical. ANY preparation and safety measures you can put in place for a potential active shooter situation is a good thing.”

Rural Communities Typically Have Longer Response Times

When 911 is called, especially in a rural community, there are typically very few officers or deputies on duty. That’s where the Hero911 network of 60,000+ nationwide federal, state, local officers is a game-changer. Those in the vicinity of an emergency can often be there much faster than traditional ways of being dispatched through 911. Officer Fahnert said, “At the Sutherland Springs church shooting, most of law enforcement at the scene trickled in as they heard about it. If the church or anyone nearby had had the Guard911 panic button and officers in the vicinity were in the Hero911 network, they could’ve been there so much faster. Eleven minutes is a long time. Maybe if an officer could’ve been there in five minutes, it would’ve been different.”

The Guard911 panic button app alerts law enforcement immediately and displays a map showing where the alert is originating from for situational awareness. Hero911 alerts ALL officers nearby so the closest can show up as quickly as possible.

In Closing – Officer Fahnert’s Advice to Other Blue

In closing, his recommendation to fellow officers is this, “If you ever respond to an active shooter event, make sure you take care of yourself afterward. You must take care of your headspace. No matter how strong you think you are, you’re not strong enough to deal with the unimaginable things you’ll see. Communicate with someone you trust – your spouse, a coworker, friend, church family, or the department’s psychologist – it’s just as important as your training beforehand. I did not do this at first and it nearly destroyed me.” What Sutherland Springs and the surrounding communities experienced that day was unspeakable horror. The Guard911 and Hero911 family are deeply sorry for their loss and how their lives were forever changed, and we thank our Heroes for saving those 20 lives.

Guard911 & Hero911 – When Seconds Save Lives®

If you own a business, church, school, or daycare center, it’s time to trust panic button technology to help protect those in your care. Contact Guard911 for a no-obligation consultation about how we can work together to stop these mass murderers from taking any more lives. If you are an officer, please download the FBI approved, free Hero911 app.
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