On November 5, 2017, one of the deadliest mass shootings in America took place at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. A gunman opened fire and killed 26 people. Among the victims; one was 77 and another was 18-months-old. Three married couples died together. A pregnant woman was killed, and also eight children. Twenty people were critically injured, including five-year-old Ryland Ward.
Paige Triola spoke with Chancie McMahan in an exclusive OC interview to talk about the day her son lived through a massacre.
On a typical Friday in her small hometown, Chancie, a single mom, was getting things ready for her son's visit with his dad. “I live in San Saba and Ryland went to Chris’ home in Sutherland Springs that weekend.” She remembered it all too clearly. “His stepmom, Joann, went to church every Sunday and always took the kids." Ryland and his three stepsisters were with her.
Chancie's cell rang Sunday afternoon, it was her aunt (who lost her best friend that day) letting her know about the shooting. “Which church?” she asked frantically. The answer made her stomach drop. “The church in Sutherland Springs,” her aunt replied. Shocked, Chancie waited, praying, desperate for answers to find out if her boy was okay. "At that moment, I realized the entire course of my life was about to change,” she said.
Ryland was shot a total of five times. Once in the arm, twice in the stomach, and twice in the leg. Losing blood and fighting to survive, he was put into a medically induced coma and airlifted to University Hospital in San Antonio. His first surgery was 14 hours long. The bullets severed his intestine which required surgeons to remove part of his colon. Ryland stayed in the hospital for more than two months. He needed two dozen surgeries to repair injuries to his arm, leg, pelvis and abdominal organs. For nine months Ryland lived with a temporary colostomy to allow his insides to heal.
Chancie’s job as a hospice care worker was unexpected training for tending to her son’s wounds. She said, “It helped having some experience with nursing. I actually knew about ostomies because some of my hospice patients had them, so when it came to changing Ryland’s bag and caring for his ostomy I felt I knew what I was doing.”
At first, Ryland felt self-conscious about having an ostomy bag. “He wouldn’t lift his shirt and didn’t want anyone looking at it," Chancie said. "He thought there was something wrong with him.” After everything he’d been through, she just wanted her son to know how grateful she was that he was alive. “I explained to him over and over it was okay to have it, and there was nothing to be ashamed of.” She would tell Ryland with love and assurance, “Your body is healing.” After a few months, Ryland was no longer embarrassed by his colostomy. He didn’t even care if the pouch peeked out from under his shirt and sometimes he’d joke around saying, “I’m pooping out of my belly!”
To parents of young children with an ostomy, Chancie can’t stress enough how important it is to encourage them not to be embarrassed. “Make light of it and join in,” she says. “I took out an ostomy bag and stuck it to my belly. I walked around with it and let it stick out of my shirt. That made Ryland happy.” He pointed and asked, “Mom, are you gonna poop out of your belly too?”
Ryland’s recovery has been remarkable. Reporter Lauren Caruba from the San Antonio Express-News wrote about an astonishing moment that unfolded in the operating room. When Ryland woke for the first time, his grandma Sandy said the first thing he told his dad was this: “I saw God and he told me it wasn’t my time yet, that I had to go back and take care of my dad.” While this miracle is surrounded by tragedy, we cannot deny that divine intervention took part in his survival.
Joann Ward, Ryland’s stepmother, was shot numerous times from shielding her children. She and her daughters, Emily (7) and Brooke (5), were killed. Her daughter Rihanna (9) survived. Chancie is still coming to terms with what happened that day but says her faith has never been stronger. “There is a massive void in my life and my son’s life by their loss,” she said. “Nothing made sense that day. I almost lost my child. This has taught me to really appreciate God and to never take anything for granted.”
Assistant fire chief Rusty Duncan, a first responder on the scene, found Ryland that day. "When I pulled Ryland out of the church, it was almost like nothing else crossed my mind," he told 60 Minutes. Chancie says they're "best friends" and that Rusty is starting a foundation called R.I.D.E., which stands for Ryland's Improvements and Developmental Education. The program will encourage young children to talk openly about trauma, domestic violence, and bullying. Ryland's story of survival is the centerpiece of the foundation.
On January 5th Ryland celebrated his seventh birthday. Not only is he walking again, but he's also taking martial arts classes and back to doing normal kid stuff. "He's my superhero," Chancie said. “Except for the fact he has scars all over his body, nothing is too different. He’s not afraid to attend church either.” As for First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, a new and bigger building is under construction thanks to generous donations. The nave is now a memorial, with white chairs marking where each victim was sitting that morning.
“There’s a reason why Ryland’s still here and I’m so glad I get the chance to see what that’s gonna turn out to be.” We couldn't agree with his mom more.