On a bright day on November 5th, 2017, a madman named Devin Patrick Kelley stormed into the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas. He shot two people on the way in and then opened up on the 50 or so congregants inside. He killed 26 people that day… many were children. Eventually, he would die himself. It was a horrific massacre that shocked Texas and the nation. Kelley wounded 20 other people as well, making it the worst church shooting in American history.
One of the first responders to arrive on the scene was Stockdale Volunteer Fire Department firefighter Rusty Duncan. When he walked into the church it was a scene straight out of a slaughterhouse. It was quiet as a tomb. People — some dead, some wounded, some too terrified to speak — were hiding under and between the pews. “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 tiny little hand belonged to six year-old Ryland Ward who had survived against all odds that day. “A little hand grabbed my pant leg. I just saw his eyes looking up at me and I knew I had to get him out of there,” he said.
Ryland’s stepmother, Joann Ward, had died shielding him during Kelley’s rampage, her body protecting him from the worst of the gunfire. Even so, the child was hit five times and he was in bad shape. Ryland lost his stepmother and two sisters that terrible day.
“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.” But the child survived and that was a miracle all by itself. Duncan had no idea how badly Ryland was hurt. It didn’t matter, he scooped him up off the floor and ran him to an ambulance, which whisked him away to San Antonio’s University Hospital. Little Ryland would be there for two months recovering from his injuries.
People all over the world pitched in to help Ryland while he got well. They sent him thousands of Christmas cards and they raised approximately $160,000 through GoFundMe. But the one person who was always there for Ryland was Duncan, who visited him in the hospital. When Duncan first saw Ryland being wheeled out in a children’s wagon from his room, trailing a bundle of monitors, he asked Ryland if he knew who he was. 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 and his family visited Ryland often in the hospital, promising the boy a ride in a fire truck once the doctors gave him the green light to head home.
When Ryland was able to finally leave the hospital, Duncan was there again and he had arranged a special ride home for the young survivor. Over 50 people were also waiting to greet the little boy. Some held signs welcoming him, others waved Texas flags or hoisted balloons at a highway intersection near the crime scene and roadside memorial.
Ryland was “ready to get in the truck right away,” Duncan said. “He wanted to go faster. He wanted the siren to be louder, and he wanted me to honk more at all the people,” he said. “He was having a blast.” The little boy got to sit up front in a fire truck leading 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.”
Observers noted how happy Ryland looked, comparing him to “a kid on Christmas morning.” The boy’s grandmother said the child had more than earned the ride. “He deserves it if any kid does,” she said. How can you not smile and cry over that? It’s such a happy moment out of such a horrific tragedy, it’s hard to process. But for one day, a little boy from Texas who survived was happy and that’s what matters here.