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After Church Shooting, Family Mourns Daughter, 2 Grandkids


Counselors are now working in Sutherland Springs, Texas, trying to help people there cope with the tragedy - the massacre at that First Baptist Church that left 26 people dead. NPR's Debbie Elliott joins us now from Texas.

Hi, Debbie.


MARTIN: Authorities have now released the names of the victims of the mass shooting. What can you tell us about the lives that were lost?

ELLIOTT: Well, the tragedy really struck a lot of families, and that's clear when you just look at the list. You see husbands, wives, children, teenagers, babies, grandparents, a woman who was pregnant. You know, churches tend to be generational. Families will go to church. They'll take up a whole pew in - on any given Sunday. And you can sort of see that as you look down this list of casualties. One family in particular, the Holcombes, lost eight members of their extended family.

MARTIN: You spent time yesterday, I understand, with relatives of another family that suffered great loss in this. Who are they?

ELLIOTT: The Wards. Mother Joann Ward and two of her daughters were killed. Her stepson remains in critical condition. And another daughter, the oldest, who's just 9, survived the attack. I visited with Joann's parents at a cancer center in San Antonio where her father was sitting for his chemo treatments. You know, they described for me this big, close-knit family that is just heartbroken and devastated. And we should warn listeners that some of this story will be difficult to hear, as they describe the horror that unfolded inside that church.

BOB LOOKINGBILL: I'm Bob Lookingbill. I'm Joann Ward's daddy.

ELLIOTT: Bob Lookingbill is wrapped in a blanket, receiving his chemotherapy IV drip. His wife Dalia Lookingbill is by his side, holding snapshots of Joann and her kids, barely able to speak for her grief.

DALIA LOOKINGBILL: Joann was my baby.

ELLIOTT: Joann was the youngest of the Lookingbills' nine kids. She was 30 and married to Chris Ward. Together, they were raising their blended family of four children and pets.

B. LOOKINGBILL: She had 30 chickens, two dogs and a cat.

D. LOOKINGBILL: She was wonderful. I'm telling you, she'd call us every morning - checked on her daddy. Yes, she was a beautiful daughter.

ELLIOTT: They talked by phone every day, sometimes conference calls with siblings looped in. She helped her father figure out computer stuff and did all the research when he got his cancer diagnosis. Dalia Lookingbill says Joann was always the clown in the family.

D. LOOKINGBILL: I don't care how sad you were. That baby would make you laugh. By the time she was done talking to you, you'd be happy.

B. LOOKINGBILL: She didn't know a stranger. There was no stranger. Everybody was her friend. She would go out of her way to help humans, animals. She would just - had a big heart. She lived for her children, and she died for them.

ELLIOTT: When the gunman stormed First Baptist, Joann Ward's first instinct was to protect her kids. She pushed all four of them to the floor and covered them with her body.

B. LOOKINGBILL: Rihanna, the surviving baby in the room, told us that mama pushed her down and tried to scoop up - she scooped up three of the babies and was lying - laying on them when the shooter kept shooting through her to get all the babies.

ELLIOTT: That was the kind of mama she was, Lookingbill says. She met the school bus every afternoon. Her kids came first. Two of them will be buried with her next week - 5-year-old Brooke Ward and 7-year-old Emily Garcia. Her stepson, 5-year-old Ryland, was severely wounded and remains in critical condition.

B. LOOKINGBILL: Oh, he's facing months and months and months of surgeries in hospital. He won't get out of the hospital for a while. He was under Joann. He got shot somewhere between three and five times. I'm not sure.

ELLIOTT: Lookingbill says the doctors are encouraged by his spirit.

B. LOOKINGBILL: He's just like a little drill bit. He's just tough, you know? He's a fighter.

ELLIOTT: Fighting for his life at age 5, the same age as his half-sister Brooke, who was killed. It was Ryland who gave her the nickname Brookie.

B. LOOKINGBILL: She was just a little firecracker, always smiling.

ELLIOTT: Her sister Emily was the singer in the family. Her idol was the pop star Selena.

B. LOOKINGBILL: Emily would go around singing Selena. She just loved her to death. That was what she wanted to grow up to be.

ELLIOTT: The oldest sister, Rihanna, is 9. Lookingbill says she wakes up every morning remembering a little bit more about the shooting.

B. LOOKINGBILL: She's going to have a long, long recovery. She was in the room. She saw the bullets flying. She saw her brother's arm fly apart. She - you know, she saw bodies stacked up.

ELLIOTT: Now, as the family prepares for a funeral for three next Wednesday, Lookingbill is struggling to make sense of the tragedy. And he's bitter that the gunman, who had a record of domestic abuse in the Air Force, even had the chance to take so many lives.

B. LOOKINGBILL: I put it squarely on the military's failure to identify this person and to prevent him from buying firearms.

MARTIN: Wow, Debbie. It's hard to listen to him. And he - Mr. Lookingbill is pointing to something we've been reporting the past few days - that if the Air Force had followed procedure, this gunman wouldn't have been able to buy his weapon from a licensed dealer.

ELLIOTT: Right - from a retail setting. And, you know, there's so many questions here about why the system failed. There were other warnings, you know, dating back to this man's high school record and some other police reports. So right now, the question is, why wasn't he stopped before he took 26 lives and left this small town just reeling in what is really an unspeakable tragedy?

MARTIN: NPR's Debbie Elliott. Thanks, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.