Sunday, July 27, 2008

Gunman attacks Unitarian church in Knoxville; seven critically wounded [UPDATE: 2 dead]

Just as we're leaving for Knoxville after visiting Shannon in Buffalo this weekend, I get this piece of terrible, shocking news from back home, via a CNN Breaking News alert on my cell phone:
Seven shot and critically wounded at Unitarian church in Knoxville, Tennessee, authorities say. Suspect arrested.
More details: the attack "occurred about 10 a.m. ET at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church ... [C]hildren from the congregation's summer theater workshop were preforming the musical 'Annie' when the gunman opened fire[.]

Becky and I have been to TVUUC a couple of times, and I gave a presentation on Hurricane Katrina there last summer.

Needless to say, this is awful. Who the hell would attack a church, and a Unitarian church at that, and during a children's play to boot? WTF?

UPDATE: Elrod of The Moderate Voice is a TVUUC member, and he writes:

This is such a shock to the community here. Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church is such a welcoming community. Though it’s decidedly more liberal than East Tennessee as a whole, we have very good relations with the rest of the community. I don’t understand why anybody would do this. All we know right now is that the suspect was not connected to the church in any way. I have no idea if the man had some sort of political or cultural agenda (TVUUC had just put up a sign welcoming gays to the congregation), or if it’s just some lunatic acting for no reason at all.

Please keep the members our church community in your thoughts and prayers today. This is such a shock to our congregation and our community as a whole.

The Knoxville News-Sentinel's Michael Silence has a full roundup of blog reactions.

At least one person is dead. Specifically, church member Greg McKendry, 60, was killed after apparently confronting the gunman and attempting to protect the children in the play:

"Just make sure you let people know that Greg McKendry is a hero, an absolute hero," [McKendry's 16-year-old foster son] Taylor Bessette said as he emerged from a side entrance at the church about three hours after the shooting. ...

He said McKendry acted as a shield to protect the children participating in the play.

"He stood in front of the bullets and … actually took the bullets to save the child," he said.

There are conflicting reports regarding whether a second person died. [UPDATE: It is now confirmed that a second person, 61-year-old Linda Kraeger, has also died.] More details:

Church member Marty Murphy ... said the more than 200 people attending a production of the musical “Annie Jr!” dove under whatever cover they could find — pews or pianos — or ran out the two doors leading to the sanctuary. The production of the musical had begun just minutes before the shooting.

Murphy said children were standing as close as 2 to 3 feet to the shooter when the attack began. ...

“One little girl had blood all over her, all over,” she said. “She was just hysterical. I don’t know how that girl is going to sleep tonight.”

Murphy said three men jumped and disarmed the shooter and bound his hands behind his back and his feet with belts “or whatever they could get their hands on.”

The shooter was placed face down on the floor, where he continued to struggle.

“He was mumbling,” Murphy said. “I couldn’t hear what he was saying. He was treated somewhat roughly.” ...

Murphy, who has been a church member since 2000, shook her head in disbelief.

“Who would have thought, here in Knoxville?" she said.

Ted Lollis, who runs the forums at TVUUC and also sends out the church's occasional e-mail bulletins (which I subscribe to), wrote the following this afternoon:

Dear friends,

As you may have seen the national news, a horrible shooting took place during this morning's crowded worship service at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist church, here in Knoxville.

Neither Schera nor I was present. I arrived at the church 50 minutes after the shooting and found the congregation already gathered in the social hall under the leadership of Brian Griffin (director of religious education) in the absence of minister Chris Buice.

From all accounts, one church member is dead, and five other adults are injured. Two or three church members jumped on the shooter and held him down until police arrived. One church member may have have deliberately stepped in front of the perpetrator and taken a direct hit from his shotgun.

I talked to several eye-witnesses but no one recognized the shooter or could tell why he so tragically interrupted a musical play (Annie, Jr.) being performed by the church's children after two weeks of rehearsal.

Local media are now scrambling to fill in the missing details. One of the best on-line sources of additional information may be

PS: On June 25, Schera and I visited the Columbine Memorial in Littleton, Colorado. (See Now we have a version of the same thing in our own backyard.


UPDATE: A new post about the shooting.