MANNING - The morning of Nov. 5, 2017, forever changed the lives of the 600 residents of the sleepy rural Texas community of Sutherland Springs.
Located at the intersection of U.S. 87 and Farm Road 539, just 21 miles east of San Antonio, Sutherland Springs is little more than a crossroads. On that fall Sunday morning, many folks had gathered for Sunday morning worship services at The First Baptist Church when the unthinkable occurred.
A lone gunman entered the church spraying bullets throughout the congregation of families including many small children. When it was over, 27 lives were lost and 20 more were injured. In just a matter of minutes, everyone in that small, close-knit community was scarred for life.
Clarendon County is very similar to Sutherland Springs with communities and towns spread throughout its borders. Paxville in western Clarendon County is at the intersection of U.S. 15 and S.C. 261. That small crossroads is home to 185 residents. A little south of there at the intersection of U.S. 15 and U.S. 301 lies Summerton with 966 residents. Toward the northern end of Clarendon County is Turbeville and its 803 residents. The county seat of Manning which is at the intersections of U.S. 301, S.C. 261 and S.C. 521 has 4,042 residents. On any given Sunday morning, visitors could find hundreds of county residents attending dozens of places of worship spread throughout the county.
Could what happened in Texas happen in Clarendon County?
Not if the Clarendon County Sheriff's Office can help it.
On Saturday, Dec. 16, from 10 a.m. to noon, the Clarendon County Sheriff's Office is offering an active-shooter training program for all the county's church leaders, pastors, ushers and support personnel at Weldon Auditorium. The program is free to local individuals in hopes that what happened in Texas could be thwarted in Clarendon County.
"We don't have a crystal ball," said Lt. Eric Rosdail with the Clarendon County Sheriff's Office. "We don't know. We want to train everyone ahead of time in order to mitigate the number of victims if someone does attempt to do that here."
Rosdail is a senior active shooter instructor with the South Carolina state program. He and CCSO's Chief Deputy Gene Morris returned recently from the biggest active-shooter training program in the nation, which is 30 to 40 miles from Sutherland Springs.
"The biggest training program is right in (Sutherland Springs') backyard," Rosdail said. "Right in the backyard of the most prepared location in the area, and it didn't stop the shooter."
Rosdail said that local first responders, city and county fire departments as well as law enforcement officers from the various agencies in the county have been invited to participate in the program.
"While we hope that nothing like that occurs here," he said, "we're certainly not immune to it."
Rosdail said domestic violence has been known to escalate into incidents where there are multiple victims.
"Acts of violence are unfortunate," he said. "It's becoming more and more commonplace than it used to be. That's why we need to prepare now."
Rosdail said individuals can't be "too prepared, too vigil or too aware."
Whether you're sitting in church, shopping in a mall or walking through the parking lot of a superstore, individuals need to be "aware of their surroundings," he added.
Some churches in the county have plans in place to counter different acts of violence, Rosdail said.
"It's good to reinforce their training," he said. "That's why we, law enforcement officers, retrain every year."
Rosdail said the focus of the training exercise is not to scare communities.
"We want to help them become better prepared to address different situations," he said.
Rosdail said he's taught many courses throughout the county on security awareness.
"People need to be aware of their surroundings," he urged. "Look around. Observe what's around you. Being observant could alert you to potential problems before they can escalate into violence.
If you want to represent your church at the program, contact Rosdail at Clarendon County Sheriff's Office by calling (803) 435-4414 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.