A woman in a trenchcoat opened fire with a long gun on Sunday inside celebrity pastor Joel Osteen’s megachurch in Texas, sending worshipers rushing to find safety while two off-duty officers confronted and killed the shooter.
Two other people were shot and injured, including a five-year-old boy who was in critical condition.
The violence erupted shortly before the Houston church’s 2pm Spanish service was set to begin, just as the rest of the country was preparing for the Super Bowl.
The woman entered the enormous Lakewood Church — a building with a 16,000-person capacity that was previously an arena for the NBA’s Houston Rockets — with the boy who was later hurt in the shootout with police. A man in his 50s was also wounded.
Details of the confrontation remain unclear in the hours after the tragedy, and police have not released the woman’s identity or a possible motive. It is also unknown what relationship, if any, the woman had to the boy, and who actually shot him and the man.
“I will say this,” Houston Police Chief Troy Finner told reporters during a news conference outside the church. “That female, that suspect, put that baby in danger. I’m going to put that blame on her.”
The boy was in critical condition at a children’s hospital, while the man was stable at a different hospital with a hip wound.
The shooting happened between services at the megachurch that is regularly attended by 45,000 people every week, making it the third-largest megachurch in the US, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
Osteen said the violence could have been much worse if it had happened during the earlier, larger 11am service.
Witnesses told reporters that they heard multiple gunshots.
Christina Rodriguez, who was inside the church, told Houston television station KTRK that she “started screaming: ‘There’s a shooter, there’s a shooter,’” and then she and others ran to the backside of a library inside the building, and stood in a stairway before they were told it was safe to leave.
Longtime church member Alan Guity, whose family is from Honduras, said he was resting inside the church’s sanctuary before the Spanish service as his mother was working as an usher when he heard gunshots.
“Boom, boom, boom, boom and I yelled: ‘Mom,’” he said.
The 35-year-old ran to his mother and they both lay flat on the floor and prayed as the gunfire continued. They remained there for about five minutes until someone told them it was safe to evacuate.
Outside, Guity said, he and his mother tried to calm people down by worshiping and singing in Spanish: “Move in me, move in me. Touch my mind and my heart. Move within me Holy Spirit.”
Despite the chaos, Finner said the tragedy “could have been a lot worse” if the two officers had not “engaged” the woman when she opened fire. They had been working security at the church on Sunday, and Finner praised them for their quick actions.
The officers work for the Houston Police Department and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. Both have been placed on protocol-mandated administrative duty.
The woman had told police that she had a bomb, but authorities said no explosives were found when her vehicle and backpack were searched.
First responders continued to search the megachurch for hours afterwards.
His congregation is “devastated,” Osteen said, adding that he would pray for the victims and for the woman who did the shooting and their families.
It was not clear where he was at the time of the shooting.
“We’re going to stay strong and we’re going to continue to, to move forward,” he said during the news conference with police. “There are forces of evil, but the forces that are for us — the forces of God — are stronger than that. So we’re going to keep going strong and just, you know, doing what God’s called us to do: lift people up and give hope to the world.”
Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued a statement saying “our hearts are with those impacted by today’s tragic shooting and the entire Lakewood Church community in Houston. Places of worship are sacred.”
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