• December 21, 2014

Survivors reflect on Oct. 16, 1991, Luby's shooting

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Posted: Sunday, October 16, 2011 12:00 pm

By Philip Jankowski

Killeen Daily Herald

Time stood still inside a crowded family restaurant on Oct. 16, 1991, after a man crashed his blue Ford Ranger though a floor-to-ceiling window.

What onlookers initially believed was a bad accident turned to horror at Luby's Cafeteria as George Hennard, 35, opened fire at 12:39 p.m., killing 23 people and wounding 20 others before retreating to a restroom and killing himself.

Twenty years ago, the Killeen rampage was the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, dropping to second place after the massacre at Virginia Tech University in 2007.

The Rev. Kirby Lack was dining at the restaurant that day and said he saw Hennard's face before he crashed into the restaurant, just off U.S. Highway 190.

"His eyes were like egg whites," he said. "They were huge."

Boss's Day, 1991

For some people, it was supposed to be a normal lunch hour on a normal day. Some were celebrating Boss's Day and others were meeting friends and family.

Lack and his friend, Michael Griffith, had just sat down for lunch. Griffith received bad news about his finances earlier in the day and wanted to console himself with dessert and the company of his friend.

Lack, now pastor at Trinity Worship Center in Copperas Cove, said Griffith had been making melancholy jokes about his funeral.

Always the pastor, Lack reassured him. "I told him you're my friend and that 'I love you, man,'" he recalled Friday. For Lack, it was an uncommon sentiment.

Former Texas state Rep. Suzanna Gratia Hupp was a practicing chiropractor in Copperas Cove.

In October 1991, her friend, Luby's manager Mark Koppenhaffe, invited her to the restaurant for lunch, but she said no - too busy to make the trek from her Copperas Cove office to Killeen.

Then her parents, Ursula and Al Gratia, arrived and coincidentally they asked her to accompany them to Luby's. "Long story short, they convinced me to go," said Hupp.

When the Gratias arrived, they decided to sit at a different table than usual. Koppenhaffe joined them. When they were nearly finished with their meal, he walked back toward the kitchen. Then the truck came through the window.

Al Morris, now retired, was an active-duty police officer with the Killeen Police Department that mid-October day.

He was teaching a law enforcement class at what was once the Sheraton Hotel. It was a routine class, except when one of the administrators noticed commotion coming from the parking lot of the Luby's restaurant, a few hundred yards from the hotel.

"We looked outside the hotel and saw a lot of people running," said Morris. "It looked like everyone was going in different directions."

His police instincts kicked in and he, along with two other officers dressed in plain clothes, headed for the restaurant. On the way, Morris stopped a woman and asked her what was going on.

She told Morris a man was inside executing people.

The shooting

Sitting in his crashed truck, Hennard leveled a 9-mm semi-automatic handgun toward a cashier and began to fire, Lack recalled.

Newspaper reports after the shootings indicated Hennard exited the vehicle and began shouting: "This is for the women of Bell County." It was one of several references he made about his scorn for women as the rampage ensued.

Lack said Hennard circled his truck three times, continually shooting. Lack wiped blood across his face and was lying as still as possible. The ruse didn't stop Hennard from shooting him in the lower back.

At one point, Hennard pressed the hot barrel of his gun to the back of Lack's head, but when the gun went off, the bullet struck the floor inches from the minister's head. Lack said he believes at that precise moment police officers entered the restaurant, causing Hennard to flinch.

The Gratias took cover when the shooting started, and Hupp thought about her pistol in her car. Earlier in life, she had been told to always keep it on her. On that October afternoon, though, she abided by the state's laws and left the gun in her car.

Though Al Gratia was unarmed and more than 70 years old, he charged the shooter.

He covered half the distance before Hennard shot him in the chest.

12 minutes later

Tommy Vaughn, a local mechanic, was later credited for saving as many as 50 people's lives that early autumn day.

He had been throwing himself against the back window of the restaurant and was finally successful in breaking it when a bullet weakened the glass.

Given the chance to escape, restaurant patrons and staffers ran out. Hupp was one of them. Hupp said she yelled at her mother to follow and ran out of the broken window. "My feet grew wings," she said.

It was only when she was outside that she realized her mother was not with her.

Hupp said police officers later told her they identified Hennard as the shooter when he shot her mother in the head. Ursula Gratia had been cradling her husband's head when she died.

After an exchange of gunfire with officers Morris, Ken Olson and Chuck Longwell, a wounded Hennard headed toward the restaurant's restrooms.

Twelve minutes after starting his shooting spree, he shot himself.

The aftermath

The Luby's massacre was not the last tragedy the Killeen-area has endured, but it served as a rallying point for community cohesiveness.

"Every business, every school, every church, everybody had some kind of impact," said Todd Martin, one of the Herald reporters on the scene that day in 1991. "We're so tied together and we sometimes forget that because we're a big city now. But there are certain things that tie us together and that certainly did."

Hupp lost her parents that afternoon and gained the spotlight when she told the media she was not mad at Hennard. Instead she blamed the Texas Legislature for not allowing her to lawfully bring her gun into a restaurant.

In 1996, she won District 54 in the Texas House of Representatives, representing Bell, Burnet and Lampasas counties for five terms. She did not seek a sixth term and now tours the country advocating against gun control.

"I still get angry when I think about it," said Hupp. "I'm now married to the guy that was my boyfriend at the time. We have two children, and I'm saddened by the fact that they haven't gotten the chance to meet their grandparents."

Lack spent two weeks in the hospital and missed the funeral of his good friend Griffith. But he was present when Luby's Cafeteria reopened in 1992 and brought his children to show them that Hennard's actions and their fear should not control them.

"It's not what happens in your life, it's how you respond to it," said Lack. "That's what matters."

Contact Philip Jankowski at philipj@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7553.

Luby's shooting victims

Twenty-three people died in the shootings at Luby's Cafeteria on Oct. 16, 1991:

Patricia Carney, 57, Belton

Jimmie Caruthers, 48, Austin

Kriemhild Davis, 62, Killeen

Lt. Col. Steven Dody, 43, Fort Hood

Al Gratia, 71, Copperas Cove

Ursula Gratia, 67, Copperas Cove

Debra Gray, 33, Copperas Cove

Dr. Michael Griffith, 48, Copperas Cove

Venice Henehan, 70, Metz, Mo.

Clodine Humphrey, 63, Marlin

Sylvia King, 30, Killeen

Zona Lynn, 45, Marlin

Connie Peterson, 43, Austin

Ruth Pujol, 36, Copperas Cove

Su-Zann Rashott, 30, San Antonio

John Romero Jr., 33, Copperas Cove

Thomas Simmons, 55, Killeen

Glen Arval Spivey, 44, Harker Heights

Nancy Stansbury, 44, Harker Heights

Olgica Taylor, 45, Waco

James Welsh, 75, Waco

Lula Welsh, 64, Waco

Juanita Williams, 64, Temple

A memorial for the victims sits behind the Killeen Community Center, 2201 E. Veterans Memorial Blvd.

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