Valerie Hunter had just stepped off the elevator on the first floor of the Northwest Austin building where she and her husband have worked for years.
She heard a loud explosion. She felt a violent shake.
Then, according to friends and relatives with whom she has shared the horror of Thursday morning, she bolted toward the nearest exit with co-workers and started searching for her husband, Vernon.
As minutes ticked away, she figured he was still helping others escape. After all, he was a volunteer safety coordinator for his floor.
But after two days of helpless waiting, family members received confirmation Saturday that Hunter, a 68-year-old Internal Revenue Service employee for more than two decades, was dead.
“It still probably hasn’t all set in,” son Ken Hunter of San Antonio said. “It didn’t seem like something that could happen.”
Authorities said Hunter was one of two people killed when a pilot preliminarily identified as Andrew Joseph Stack III flew his single-engine plane into the building, which houses IRS offices. Stack is believed to have died in the inferno.
Before taking off, Stack left behind a lengthy letter blaming the IRS for many of his troubles and saying, “Take my pound of flesh and sleep well.”
“My dad, in that building, he didn’t write the tax laws,” Ken Hunter said. “If he would have talked to my dad, my dad would have helped him.”
In a statement, Hunter’s relatives said their thoughts also are with Stack’s family.
“We are not angry at them because they did not do this,” the statement said. “We forgive Joe for his actions, which took Vern’s ‘pound of flesh’ with him.”
Loved ones shared more stories of Hunter’s life — he was an usher at his church and a fan of Rudy’s barbecue and talked of another career after retirement — on Saturday, a day in which a second injured victim was released from a San Antonio burn unit.
At Hunter’s home in Cedar Park, friends, fellow church members at Austin’s Greater Mount Zion Baptist Church and IRS co-workers tried to comfort his family.
Others from across the nation who knew Hunter and weren’t at the house spoke of him by telephone.
Hunter’s oldest brother, Harold L. Jackson, 79, of Huntsville, Ala., said Hunter grew up in a small South Carolina town.
Hunter was adopted by the Jackson family when he was 2 months old, and although he kept his original name, he was one of five brothers who called themselves “The Other Jackson 5.”
He joined the Army after high school.
Harold Looney, a retired Army chief warrant officer who met Hunter in 1962 when they were students in the military in Augusta, Ga., remembered him as one of the most mild-mannered men in the service. Looney recalled a particular incident during the racially divided 1960s in which Hunter went to a boardinghouse where another soldier was staying to give him a ride.
“The owner came to the door and said he should never, ever come back to that house again,” Looney said. “He was almost in tears after that.”
Family members said Hunter served two tours of duty in Vietnam and will receive full military honors at his funeral in Austin. He will be buried in the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery in Killeen.
Ken Hunter said his father, who had three children, three stepchildren and seven grandchildren, retired in El Paso after more than 20 years in the military. He worked as a substitute teacher before the IRS recruited him.
Ken Hunter said work brought Vernon Hunter to Austin in the mid-1990s.
Friend and fellow church member Larry McDonald said he and his wife met the Hunters several years ago at church and struck up an immediate friendship that included regular trips for barbecue.
“It was a great relationship, a great friendship,”
McDonald said. “They are just good people.”
Ken Hunter said that his father enjoyed working for the government but that he had more frequently talked of retirement — and a possible new career.
They had discussed Vernon Hunter going to school to learn how to help children with learning disabilities like the one a granddaughter has.
“He was so involved in her life,” Ken Hunter said. “He wanted to make sure he could help everybody.”