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Minister finds himself in the middle of a war zone

SANTEE, Calif. (BP)–The morning of March 5 started out in a fairly usual manner for Phil Herrington, pastor of the Pathways Community Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in the San Diego suburb of Santee.

Monday is traditionally Herrington’s day off and he usually spends his morning quietly sipping coffee and reading his Bible in the backyard of his family’s home. That’s where Herrington was on the morning of March 5 when the solitude of his study time was interrupted by a chorus of sirens.

The father of three, who also happens to be the area chaplain for the San Diego Sheriff’s Dept., on instinct, got up and walked inside. The constant wailing of sirens was evidence of a bad situation and Herrington waited for the phone to ring. And it did.

Herrington picked up the receiver and a voice on the other end sobbed the news that would soon spread across the nation. A 15-year-old gunman had opened fire on his classmates. There were many students injured. At the time, the extent of those injuries was unknown.

Within minutes, Herrington suited up in his sheriff’s department jacket and headed to Santana High School. It was less than 30 minutes after Andy Williams had begun his murderous rampage.

Herrington parked his car alongside the perimeter of the school and ran inside to the hallway and bathroom where the shooting started. He described what he saw for Baptist Press:

“It was a war zone. The paramedics had already set up a triage unit and were assisting the most seriously wounded. The two boys who were mortally wounded were still there. There was blood everywhere. I’ve never been to a violent crime scene before, but it seemed like everything was in slow motion.”

The first student Herrington saw was a familiar one — James Jackson, 19, a member of Herrington’s church. The young man, who played football for the Santana Sultans, had been shot in the hip.

“He was in a daze,” Herrington recalled. “James and another boy [Barry Gibson] were trying to help another friend who had been shot in the neck. In the process, both boys were hit by gunfire.”

Herrington assisted paramedics by holding Jackson’s I.V. bag. He also prayed with the injured teenager.

“James wanted me to call his grandmother and tell her that he was OK and I did,” Herrington added.

About that time, paramedics brought out the body of Brian Zucker. “I could tell he was mortally wounded,” Herrington told Baptist Press. Zucker, 14, later died of his injuries at a San Diego hospital.

Randy Gordon, the other fatality in the shooting, was hit in his lung. A track and cross-country runner, the 17-year-old tried to outrun his assailant. He collapsed and died in the grass — with two teachers watching over him. His body was left at the crime scene overnight.

Herrington walked through the bloodied corridor filled with backpacks, books and even shoes of students who literally ran out of them during the shooting.

Shortly after the shooting, Herrington received an assignment to assist the growing crowd at the Del Taco restaurant across from the school.

“That’s where a number of the parents were gathering,” he said. “Some parents knew their kids were shot but didn’t know their conditions. We were there to keep them calm.”

Soon after, Herrington was chosen to accompany a group of sheriff’s department officials who had to deliver a death notification to Mary and Stan Gordon. They were sitting in a booth inside the restaurant.

The Gordons, who Herrington said are unchurched, were escorted from the restaurant in an unmarked car and taken to their home. “I followed them home and they asked me to stay with them,” he said. “Within a few hours my role shifted from being a chaplain to being their pastor.”

Herrington said the family has been showered with love and attention from the entire community.

“And we’re going to try and cultivate a relationship with them and maybe see them come to faith,” he said.

And on Saturday, March 10, Herrington will conduct the funeral and memorial service of their son.

For Herrington, the events of the past week have been tragic and tumultuous — for both the school and the community. “I suppose it really hit me the day after the shooting,” he said. “It wasn’t post traumatic syndrome, but I really felt drained.”

Herrington said he has plans to call Al Meredith, pastor of Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, for advice on dealing with the tragedy. More than one year ago, a gunman opened fire on worshipers at Wedgwood, killing both students and adults.

“Over the long haul, we are going to be here ministering and counseling not only students, but also adults,” Herrington said. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if people are drawn to the church as a result of what happened at Santana.”

    About the Author

  • Todd Starnes