On Nov. 5, 2017, Devin Patrick Kelley entered First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, a tiny congregation in southeast Texas, and made history. Sadly, he didn’t do so by performing some incredible act of charity, but rather for murdering over two-dozen men, women — and children.
Kelley entered the church guns blazing, and when the smoke cleared, 26 people were dead and 20 wounded, making the incident the worst church shooting in American history.
One of the first people on the scene was Stockdale Volunteer Fire Department firefighter Rusty Duncan, and what greeted him was a tableau straight from a slaughterhouse.
“I was just checking for survivors, and I felt a little tug on my pant leg,” he told the San Antonio Express-News. “I looked down and a little hand was coming from under somebody.”
That hand belonged to six-year-old Ryland Ward.
His stepmother, Joann Ward, had shielded him during Kelley’s rampage, her body protecting him from the worst of the gunfire.
But Ryland hadn’t escaped unscathed. Five shots had struck his small frame, causing extensive damage.
“His arm’s messed up where he was shot,” his grandmother Sandra Ward explained to NBC News. “His lower intestine, his bladder — it just goes on and on.”
Duncan didn’t know the extent of Ryland’s injuries, but he got the boy off the floor and to an ambulance, which whisked him away to San Antonio’s University Hospital.
The child would stay there for two months.
People from across the globe rallied together to help Ryland during his convalescence, sending him thousands of Christmas cards and contributing roughly $160,000 through GoFundMe. But the person who truly helped him recover was Duncan, who visited him in the hospital.
The first time the firefighter saw him, Ryland was being wheeled from his room in a children’s wagon provided by the hospital, trailing a bundle of monitors. “I asked if he knew who I was,” Duncan recalled.
Ryland’s great-uncle Earl McMahan was there for the encounter and said, “They stared at each other for what seemed like eternity, though it was probably a few minutes. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the lobby.”
Duncan was there, too, when Ryland left the hospital and arranged a special ride home for the young survivor.
The boy got to sit up front in a fire truck in a convoy that stretched some 100-vehicles long.
“He’s one happy little boy right now,” Wilson County Fire Marshal Edwin Baker said. “He got to ride in a fire truck and talk on the radio, and he was a captain for the day.”