CARTHAGE, N.C. First Baptist Church in Carthage, N.C., designed its fellowship hall to be used in a disaster, but church leaders expected it would be a hurricane or a flood, not a mass shooting in the small town.
Carthage officials used the church on Sunday, March 29 to talk to about 300 people who had relatives at Pinelake Health and Rehab nursing home, where a gunman killed seven residents, one staff member and wounded three others that morning.
Thomas Herndon, the pastor at First Baptist Church and a chaplain for the town's police department, said North Carolina state Rep. Jamie Boles came in to the back of the church just as the 11 a.m. worship service was ending. Boles, who also serves as the area's medical examiner and owns a local funeral home, told Herndon that the town needed a place to talk to the relatives, who were then in the parking lot of the nearby courthouse.
"When I went outside it was just people everywhere," Herndon said.
Church members made tea and coffee for the relatives, who didn't have much information about the shooting then.
"The whole place was in turmoil," Herndon said.
Boles asked Herndon if he would pray, which he did.
"People just calmed down after that," Herndon said.
County officials read out a list of names and asked those related to them to step outside.
"Those were the ones who were either killed or wounded," Herndon said.
Those relatives were taken to separate rooms in another building, where they received counseling.
Herndon said church members felt God's hand guiding them as they ministered to the relatives.
"We were able to share our faith and help them with their needs," he said.
Herndon said he first heard about the shooting from a church member who is a resident at Pinelake. She called the church at about 9:55 a.m. and told Herndon that there was a shooting going on at the facility.
Herndon went and told the resident's husband about the shooting. The husband was about to go to the center when his wife called back and asked him not to go. Herndon let the man talk to his wife.
"She was naturally quite disturbed and upset about what was going on," Herndon said.
Herndon said he has talked with Chris McKenzie, the town's police chief, who he described as a "well respected, fine Christian man."
"He's under a tremendous amount of pressure," Herndon said.
McKenzie's parents, Tommy and Worthy McKenzie, are active members at the church.
At a press conference the day after the shooting, the police chief said the Carthage community has strong faith.
"Faith will get this community through this," he said. "I believe that."
McKenzie said the officer who stopped the shooting was the only one on duty when the shooting happened on Sunday morning. The number of officers on duty is based on the call volumes at those times, he said.
"I've mentioned many times we're faith-based," he said. "Everybody's in church."
The gunman was identified as Robert Stewart, 45. He killed seven residents and a male nurse, Jerry Avant Jr., 39, before a police officer ended the rampage by shooting him, according to news reports. Avant's sister, Frances Green, said police officials believe her brother was shot while trying to stop the gunman. The doctors said that Avant was shot more than two dozen times while trying to shield others from the gunman, according to CBS news.
While the motive for the attack was at first unclear, police investigators were looking into the fact that his estranged wife worked there, McKenzie said Monday. Stewart's ex-wife, Sue Griffin, told reporters he recently had been reaching out to family members, telling them he had cancer and that he was preparing to "go away." Griffin's 15-year marriage to Stewart ended in 2001.
"He did have some violent tendencies from time to time," Griffin said. "I wouldn't put it past him. I hate to say it, but it is true."