Editor’s note: This is part of a series on the deadly shootings at the Killeen Luby’s on Oct. 16, 1991.
Emergency room personnel at the former Metroplex Hospital in Killeen were just beginning to hear about what became known as the worst mass shooting in U.S. history when the first gunshot victim was rushed through the doors for treatment.
“That was one of the interesting parts of the day,” said Dr. Charles Mitchell, who was the emergency room physician on duty that morning, Oct. 16, 1991. “We had not yet heard from EMS or anyone by the time we got our first patient.
“He was shot in the ankle and was running down the (highway) access road, where a driver passing by picked him up and brought him to the emergency room. He then detailed to us what was really going on. By that time, we had heard something of what was happening, but we had gotten no calls. The patient told us what was really happening — that multiple people had been shot and he assumed fatally, because a lot of them were head wounds.
“Because of the nature of the wounds, most of the victims were not transported (to the hospital), of course. We ended up getting about 12 (victims). Darnall (hospital on Fort Hood) got about the same, as did Scott & White. Seaton (Medical Center Harker Heights) wasn’t here at that time, so the cases were dispersed between what was then Metroplex, Darnall and Scott & White.”
The tragedy that put a worldwide spotlight on the city began shortly after 12:30 p.m. Luby’s, one of Killeen’s most popular restaurants, was packed with men and women celebrating National Bosses’ Day when a man from Belton crashed his Ford Ranger pickup through one of the large plate-glass windows at the front of the building and into the dining area, climbed out with a pair of semiautomatic pistols and began shooting terrified patrons.
A total of 23 were killed and another 27 wounded during the spree that reportedly lasted about 15 minutes until the man fatally shot himself after being wounded by a pair of Killeen Police officers during a shootout inside the cafeteria.
Mitchell, now in private practice in Killeen, said that when that first victim was brought in and he learned the magnitude of what was happening, he activated the emergency room’s mass casualty response plan and called in what he estimates to be about 20 additional medical personnel, including general surgeons, orthopedic surgeons and other specialists.
Most of the dozen victims taken to Metroplex (now AdventHealth-Central Texas) required surgery. Some were treated and released, and some required not just physical but also emotional intervention.
“Some were minimally injured, but psychologically we had to deal with some of those issues,” Mitchell said. “Trauma; shock. You get hospital support, chaplain support, you reach out to their spiritual network, and then you get psychiatric support, also.
“Back in ’91, we didn’t have a trauma center, per se, but every emergency department has a plan that is built in and tested once or twice a year, generally through a mock-type set-up. Not all those 12 victims were in the emergency room all at the same time. Generally, when we send a patient forward, we don’t get them back. We send them to X-ray; we send them to recovery … you have designated areas you go to so that you can keep the ER as least impacted as possible. You don’t want to bring them back and fill up the ER. You keep them going forward.
“The biggest chaos we had was trying to organize all the additional personnel who came in; trying to organize everyone and get them to where they needed to be. I thought we handled it quite well.”
Mitchell said he did not personally know any of the victims he treated, but he was acquainted with one.
“Sometime after that, we talked about it a little bit,” he said. “I don’t know where that person has gone. They may have left the area by now.”
That unforgettable day was “probably the heaviest of the experiences I’ve ever had,” Mitchell said. He once served as chief of the ER at Fort Hood’s Darnall hospital when a helicopter crash resulted in multiple victims, but nothing ever came close to the Luby’s aftermath.
“Even the 12 patients we got unexpectedly like that overburdens the system,” he said. “We were very pleased that we were able to have some early information as to what was really going on, so we could anticipate and prepare.”
Mitchell said it was an extremely long day that was made even longer by such extra duties as attending press conferences with media that descended on Killeen from all over the world. When it was finally time to go home, he did his best to leave work at the door, but being part of such a tragic event like that is impossible to forget.
“The enormity of the situation is what affected me the most,” he said. “When you hear some of the patients who were there talk about it, and you go through it … you never forget it.
“Even today, as I ride by what formerly was Luby’s (now a Chinese food restaurant) — my wife and I would occasionally eat there, but I’ve never been there since — I think back to that day.
“When something like that is over, you’re just exhausted. You just kind of sit down, reflect and contemplate, and then get involved in something that is not medicine-related. You can’t take that on forever. You have to be able to go away from it for a while.
“But this is what I do. I was glad it went as well as it did (and) that we were able to give some support … and I am hopeful that nothing like that will ever happen again.”