Sutherland Springs, Texas is a window into the heart of rural Texas. For transients moving through Sutherland, the 87 Ice House service station is the last call for fuel for the next seven miles on US Highway 87, and more than 15 miles heading either east or west. Sitting a stone’s throw away from the site of the First Baptist Church, the small blue and white, sheet metal facade store borders the cordoned crime scene.
In a town of less than 500 residents, the options are limited for goods and services. To call Sutherland Springs a “one-light town” would be an overstatement; there are literally no traffic lights serving Sutherland Springs on highway 87.
“It may be 10 to 30 customers a day depending on the traffic on (Highway) 87. So we get non-regulars on a routine basis, but I would say that about 95 percent of our customer base is locals and regulars,” says owner Chris Taylor.
A week ago, a busy day would have meant more than four customers were in the store at any given time. Today the steady stream of customers numbers over a thousand a day, stretching to the door and will continue until the mass of federal agents and media leave.
On Sunday, Nov. 5, the 87 Ice House in Sutherland Springs was transformed from a sleepy little service station into a hub for first responders, and a place for residents to gather and grieve.
That was enough of a reason, according to Taylor, to open his store to the community non-stop since Sunday.
“This store does not make me any money. Why do I keep it open?” Taylor rhetorically asked. “I have people that live here in this community and people that rely on this store to be here, and unless I’m losing a lot of money…I’ll leave this store here.”
From water and Gatorade to phone chargers and coffee, Taylor continues to donate goods to the community free of charge while maintaining his store well past its normal working hours.
On Monday, a day after the largest mass shooting in the state’s history left 26 dead, the four corners of the store became mini-newsrooms, with surge protectors and extension cords maintaining a host of laptops and cellphones well into the night.
This is what you do to help, says Taylor.
“We know most of the people that were in the church are routine customers and we wanted to help,” Taylor said. “The hub at that time was in the community center, and so most people were gathering there. We talked about it, my wife and I, and said, “Hey do they need water?”
When he was notified that there was an active shooter in Sutherland Springs, Taylor followed a directive from the Sheriff to lock up the store.
On arrival, shortly before 1 pm on Sunday, Taylor reopened the doors – they haven’t closed since. Residents and first responders were given water and Gatorade, children were provided juices.
He ran into the priest at the community center. “He was kind of coordinating things at the time and he said, ‘You’re the man I wanted to talk to. There are a bunch of people in here that don’t have the ability to charge their phones.’ So I took all of our phone chargers and brought them over there. I also brought surge protectors and extension cords.”
While the chaos was growing, Taylor reserved a small wooden table in the back of his store for FBI field interviews, but that doesn’t stop locals from occasionally enjoying a cup of coffee there.
To say that the store has become the heart of the goings-on in Sutherland Springs would be restrained. First responders, media personnel, residents and government agencies use the store as a de facto hub of information and services since the mass shooting on Sunday.
While Taylor believes there will be short-standing economical and emotional impacts to the community, he knows there will also be positive effects that come from such a devastating situation.
“People come in here and you’ll see my employees calling them by their first name. ‘Hey Jack, what’s going on?’ or “Where’s your grandchild today?’ That kind of thing,” Taylor said. “I think this incident will bring people closer together because they have a story to tell, and they want to tell that story.”
Taylor shared a story of his previous store manager who lost her daughter in the shooting, in addition to having her sister and two grandchildren shot.
“These are people that were not just customers, but came in here all the time.” Taylor said. “That little girl, she used to be behind the register when she was 8 years old helping customers out. Those kind of things leave a pretty deep impact.”
Not only has the small rural service station become the hub of activity in Sutherland Springs, but the employees who work there are a microcosm of the type of hard-working, nose to the grindstone types that characterize the people of Sutherland Springs.
Chris Spear, an employee at 87 Ice House, lives behind the service station in a mobile home with his pregnant wife and toddler son. The site of the shooting sits no more than 100 yards from his back door.
Spear was working at the time the shooting started and worked well past the normal closing time to keep the store running. Spear said he did so, despite his own loss. Spear’s father died on Sunday morning after losing his battle with cancer.
“I’m not even going to the funeral for my dad because I need to work,” Spear said. “I’m the only one in my family who can pay for the funeral costs.”
When asked how his family was coping with the events, Spear painted a grim picture.
“My father died, I have a hormonal pregnant wife at home, a one-year-old who can’t sleep because the constant noise outside, my store is swamped with people, and my town is in chaos.” Spear said. “But there are people out there who are worse off than me, so who am I to complain?”