Despite tragedy, many sad to see Killeen, Texas Luby's go

Friday, September 8th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

KILLEEN, Texas – It remained a Sunday ritual for Evelyn Seales and her family, even after that horrible Wednesday in 1991 when a madman struck. After services at East Side Baptist Church, the Seales family packed into the car and headed for Luby's Cafeteria for lunch.

Now they will have to go elsewhere to dine.

Competition from a host of new restaurants has done what a deranged gunman couldn't nine years ago – put this once-popular establishment out of business.

The Luby's here – site of the worst mass killing in U.S. history – will close its doors for the final time Friday.

It was there on Oct. 16, 1991, that George Hennard, a hot-tempered former merchant seaman with a grudge, crashed his pickup through a front window and, with a pistol in each hand, calmly walked among the diners, firing at random.

When it was finally over – 17 minutes and 80 spent rounds later – 23 customers were dead and 21 others wounded. The gunman, wounded three times and cornered by officers near the restrooms, shot himself in the head, ending the siege.

Ms. Seales, 69, was among the 162 diners and workers who had packed the cafeteria at lunchtime. And even though still nursing mental wounds, she has remained a loyal customer.

"I didn't feel like I should let him [Mr. Hennard] ruin something I enjoyed doing," she said.

The Luby's in this Central Texas town – home to Fort Hood – is one of 15 being closed by the publicly owned, San Antonio-based company.

Karen Sparks, a spokeswoman, said the decision to shut the doors was based solely on economics.

"It's just an underperforming unit," she said. At least some of the 40 employees – Ms. Sparks said she doesn't know how many – will be offered jobs at other locations. The building will be sold.

The cafeteria reopened five months after the shooting. The company said it spent $350,000 remodeling and installing additional safety features. But more and more of its customers were lured away by restaurants that have sprung up around town.

Nothing special is planned for closing day, Ms. Sparks said. But the serving line is expected to be long as diners queue up for a final pass by the usual array of salads, meats and desserts.

It will be a bittersweet moment for Ms. Seales, who plans to be on hand with her grandson for a final meal. She, like some other victims, still suffers from pangs of guilt over why she was spared while friends and loved ones died.

The closing has rekindled many memories.

Betty May, who dined with Ms. Seales that day, is still puzzled by her fascination with the size of the gunman's shoes. For Ms. Seales, what comes to mind is her father's voice, from the grave, which she says saved her life. And her uneaten piece of coconut pie.

Louis Caraballo, the last of Mr. Hennard's victims to leave the hospital and one of the most seriously wounded, remembers the calmness with which the gunman went about his deadly business. Mr. Caraballo also recalls the loving support he and his family received from friends and strangers.

And he puzzles over the door through which he escaped – why it opened for him when others couldn't get through.

Ms. Seales, Ms. May and their friend Hazel Holley, then 70, were at their table planning a Halloween party for their church Sunday school when Mr. Hennard's blue pickup crashed through the window.

They hid under tables when the shooting started, and Ms. May recalls how she watched in horror as the gunman coolly walked past her three times sorting out victims.

"All I could see was his feet. I thought, what big feet he had. You think of some funny things at a time like that," she recalled.

"He had a gun in each hand. I heard him say, 'I'm getting even.'"

Ms. Seales was sure she was going to die when she came face to face with Mr. Hennard as he stopped just two feet away to reload.

"When I looked at him and saw his black eyes – I always say black, but I know they were brown, but they were so dark and piercing – I knew what was coming and I said my prayer, 'Lord, I'm ready.'"

It was then that she heard the crash. Tommy Vaughn, a mechanic, had thrown himself through a back window, opening an escape route for about 30 diners and staff.

As Ms. Seales ran toward the opening in a hail of gunfire, she heard a familiar voice.

"I could hear a voice telling me, 'Honey, move over. Come this way,'" she recalled. "It was my daddy's voice. I stepped to my left. ... That's when the bullet went by."

Her father had died years before.

Ms. Seales said she later learned from her doctor that a bullet had grazed her right leg, burning the flesh.

Another vivid memory is of the news photographs of her uneaten piece of coconut pie left sitting alone on her table amid all the rubble.

On her first visit to the cafeteria after the shooting, Ms. Seales hurried past the salads and meats and went straight for the dessert bar, where she picked up a piece of coconut pie.

"I said, 'I'm going to have my pie first,'" she said. "The manager was real sweet. He came and brought me a whole pie" – on the house.

Mr. Caraballo, a mechanic who was dining with his boss, was struck by Mr. Hennard's truck when it came through the window. He was shot in the back as he lay injured on the floor.

His boss, Tom Simmons, was pinned under the truck and shot four times, Mr. Caraballo recalled.

"I don't remember much except the calm way he [Mr. Hennard] was doing this," he said. "He was very calm. ... He would say something like, 'This is for what the women of Bell County did to me.' He would pause a little bit, and say, 'Well, was it worth it?'

"He just kept talking like that and shooting people at the same time."

Mr. Caraballo, who had been tossed into an open area by the pickup and had no place to hide, knew he had to act fast.

"I said, 'Lord, if it's your will that I am going to live, you have to make a way out for me. If not, then I am going to die and I'll be with you in heaven.'"

Despite his injuries, Mr. Caraballo, a Vietnam veteran, dragged himself toward an exit door when the shooter's gun jammed and threw himself against it. To his surprise now, it opened, allowing him to escape.

"Later on, people told me that they had tried that door and it didn't open for them," he recalled.

Mr. Caraballo, 51, lost a kidney, spleen, part of his stomach and a lung. He still carries the bullet in his body. But when he tries to think about what happened, it's the kindness that he and his family were shown that first comes to mind.

"I just start thinking about all the nice things people did for us," he said. "We got letters from all over – from kids in school. We were overwhelmed by letters."

State Rep. Suzanna Gratia Hupp, a Lampasas Republican whose mother and father were shot to death in the cafeteria, had urged Luby's officials to keep the restaurant open after the shooting.

Some residents had wanted the building torn down.

"We made a call and said, please don't close that place," she recalled. "We felt it would create a lot more victims. Forty-odd people had jobs there."

Ms. Hupp was adamantly against leveling the building.

"We felt like that empty field would be a memorial to the creep," she said of the gunman.

Ms. Hupp, who later crusaded for gun rights, said she doesn't blame the company for calling it quits.

"It was based on something entirely separate from the horrendous event that happened there," said Ms. Hupp, who was elected to the House four years ago.

She said she believes the massacre was partly responsible for passage in 1995 of the law allowing Texans to carry concealed handguns.

Other victims also are sorry to see the cafeteria close.

"I hate to see it go," Ms. May said. "It's always a nice place to go after church. We'll miss it. It seems like it's kind of a monument to those who died."

Ms. Seales said she will miss her weekly visits to the cafeteria – even though she can't bear "to go back into that corner" where she sat with her friends on the day of the shooting.

Killeen Mayor Maureen Jouett said she, too, is disappointed by the closing and plans to ask Luby's to donate the building to the city. But she doesn't think that will happen.

She said the cafeteria was a victim of a robust economy that lured other restaurants to Killeen.

"We are blessed to live in a time of great prosperity, and unfortunately, some people want to sit down and have their food served rather than eat cafeteria-style," she said.

Ms. Jouett, too, was touched by the events of that day. But she wishes there was more focus on the good things about her community.

"I worked at a hospital when it happened, so you remember it," she said. "But there are a lot more things that are positive about our community.

"It's unfortunate that this particular gentleman, who was not even from our community, chose our community to do his mental-problems thing."