Joe Barnhart thought he was dying after a gunman opened fire on him, the people closest to him, and his fellow church congregants in Knoxville, Tenn., last Sunday.
But as he lay bleeding on the floor of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, Barnhart’s first thought was of what would happen to his grandchildren.
“I thought that I had been hit in my back with a shotgun and I was dying,” Barnhart told TODAY co-host Matt Lauer from his hospital bed on Wednesday.
As he lay wounded, Barnhart knew that his friend Linda Kraeger, who had come to Tennessee to help him and his wife, Maryann, raise their grandchildren, would not be able to do that because she was already dying or dead. “So my brother Jim will help with that,” he recalled thinking. “And of course, our daughter had just come from Texas and so the children would be taken care of. So that’s what flashed through my mind.”
A 58-year-old unemployed engineer is accused in Sunday morning’s attack during a children’s production of the musical “Annie” in the church. Police say a letter found in Jim D. Adkisson’s car showed that he was spurred to his shooting spree in part by his “stated hated for the liberal movement.”
Barnhart, 76, was one of the nine victims in the shooting. His long-time friend and researcher Linda Kraeger was killed. His daughter, brother and sister-in-law were also among the injured.
Now the retired University of North Texas religion and philosophy professor is trying to make sense of the senseless.
“This killing was wholly impersonal,” he told Lauer.
A family’s anguish
Barnhart and his family were at the church to watch his granddaughter Tori perform in the play, which was put on by children from the Sequoyah Hills Church and the Westside Unitarian Universalist Church.
At about 10 a.m., according to police, Adkisson walked into the church, pulled a 12-gauge shotgun from a guitar case, and fired three rounds.
Barnhart said it was obvious Adkisson was taking aim at his row.
“Our 14-year-old [granddaughter], I think she had been on stage and I think she witnessed all of this,” Barnhart told Lauer.
Barnhart recalls that Kraeger, who had been Barnhart’s researcher for more than 40 years and followed his move from Texas to Tennessee, “fell down on her face in blood.”