Heroic Mother Died Shielding Own Children in Texas Church Slaughter: 'She Was Epitome of Christ'
Three of the 26 victims in Sunday's mass church shooting in Texas were a mother and two of her young daughters, though the woman's two other children reportedly survived only because she sacrificed her life for them, a family friend has said.
Vonda Smith, a close friend of slain mother Joann Ward, told Fox News in an interview on Wednesday that she spoke with 9-year-old Rihanna, one of Ward's children that survived the shooting at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs.
"The first thing she told me was that the reason she didn't get shot like everybody else was because her momma threw her on the ground and told her to hide," Smith said.
"As soon as she threw her on the ground, she scooped up her other three that were sitting next to her in a pew — Ryland, who's 5, and Brooke, who's 5, and Emily, who's 7 — and she immediately covered them with her body. And that's exactly how Rihanna described it."
While Rihanna and Ryland survived the attack, Emily and Brooke died alongside their mother.
Smith explained that her friend was strong in her relationship with Jesus, and would tell people to "live for Christ, no matter what."
"She was dragging people to Church. She was begging her best friend, Cody, to go to Sunday school with her. That was her heart," Smith recalled.
The family friend noted that the community is not surprised at Ward's ultimate sacrifice for her children.
"If they needed anything, it was [at] the drop of a hat. It was about her children. And that's Joann's heart," she said. "It's the thing that you hear sometimes parents say, but you never think they'll have to. She said, 'I would die for my children.' And she ended up having to do that, in the very end."
"She loved them so. And she gave it up for them ultimately," Smith continued. "She was the epitome of Christ."
The tragic stories from Sunday's shooting carried out by 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley that has shaken Christians across the country continue flowing in.
Pastor Frank Pomeroy of First Baptist Church and his wife, Sherri, were away on the day of the shooting, but revealed that their 14-year-old daughter was among the victims.
Sherri Pomeroy said in a statement that the church was not comprised of "members or parishioners," but were a "very close family."
"We ate together, we laughed together, we cried together, and we worshiped together. Now most of our church family is gone, our building is probably beyond repair and the few of us that are left behind lost tragically yesterday," the pastor's wife said.
"As senseless as this tragedy was, our sweet Belle would not have been able to deal with losing so much family," she said, referring to her daughter.
On Monday it emerged that a pregnant mother and three of her five young children, along with several other members of her extended family, were all killed in the shooting.
Crystal Holcombe was killed within minutes of the attack, alongside her children Emily, Megan and Greg, with her father-in-law, his wife, her brother-in-law and his 18-month-old daughter being among the victims as well.
Michele Hill, Holcombe's aunt, said in a GoFundMe campaign message:
"Through all the pain we still hold on to the unshakable truth that we serve a mighty and just GOD. HE is on HIS throne and is kneeling down to hear our prayers and is collecting each and every tear we shed. We do not mourn their death because we are unsure of where they are, we mourn for the loss of their presence in our lives. We have no doubt that their last breath here was their first breath in the presence of our GOD and HE welcomed them with open arms."