Friday, September 17, 1999

Isle family survives
Ft. Worth shooting

Matthew Sanders and family
were at Wedgwood Baptist

By Rod Ohira


Returning to Wedgwood Baptist Church will present a difficult challenge for a congregation gripped by shock and grief, says a Hawaii man who survived Wednesday's shooting rampage in Texas.

"This will be a test of faith," said Matthew Sanders, a former Hawaii Baptist Academy teacher who is attending Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

"We need to go back and reclaim this place for God. The sanctuary is a place of joy, peace and refuge, and we cannot let one man's act destroy this. We need to let people know that when violence begins to attack people of God, they will only gain strength."

Tentative plans call for the church to be reopened Sunday, Sanders said.

"From what I've seen, prayers have increased, faith has increased, and there's more love being demonstrated for one another (since the shooting)," Sanders said.

Sanders, his wife -- 1990 Miss Hawaii Cheryl Toma -- and their three children, ages 7 months to 5 years old, were among several hundred people at Wedgwood Baptist Church, where 47-year-old Larry Gene Ashbrook fatally shot seven people and wounded seven others before killing himself.

"In a lot of ways, it doesn't feel real because we never saw the gunman, and yet you know it was real," Sanders said. "Right now, it comes in waves.

"I don't think about it when I'm working, but when I'm alone I think about it a lot. My wife doesn't feel safe and is also feeling grief. One of her friends was killed."

Sanders was in a meeting room located in the middle of the building when Ashbrook entered through the east door of the church and shot two people on his way to the main sanctuary, where he opened fire on hundreds of others.

Cheryl Toma-Sanders, who was with orchestra members in the choir room near the sanctuary, heard what sounded like shots, her husband said.

"They saw a bullet come through the wall," he said. "The drummer is a police detective, and he knew what the sounds were. He told everybody to get down, and when there was a lull (in the firing), he got everybody out of the room."

Sanders and another man headed for the nursery area located on the opposite side of the church from the meeting room.

"A woman came running down the hallway talking about a shooting, and we asked her if it was real or a joke," Sanders said. "We didn't know for sure until I turned around and saw a guy, Jeff Lassiter, who was wounded and being helped out.

"My attention turned to the children."

Sanders made it to the nursery, where he grabbed his 7-month-old daughter and dashed outside. He saw his wife there and handed the child to her before going back in.

About 40 kids, including his two older children, and six teachers were locked in another room. Sanders and others helped march them out into the parking lot and down a ditch.

"We heard he had a pipe bomb and tried to throw it up to the balcony, but it wasn't a very good pipe bomb," said Sanders, noting that it didn't cause major damage or injuries.

"This guy was just crazy."

In Hawaii, 4,000 miles away, the pastor of First Southern Baptist Church of Ewa Beach was driving home when he caught part of a radio news report about a shooting at a church in Texas.

"All I heard was that someone was killed," said the Rev. William Sanders, Matthew's father. "I just thought, 'I'll see it in the paper.'"

About an hour later, William Sanders received a call from his daughter, Shey Macalik, who lives in Rockwall, Texas.

"She asked if I had heard about the shooting," William Sanders said. "When she told me my son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren were at the church, my heart leaped up my throat.

"Then she said they were OK."

After the call, stunned, alone and sitting in his living room, Rev. Sanders began praying aloud.

"I just started praying for families of those who were shot and thanking God for the safety of the rest," he said.

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