By Elizabeth Wolfe
UVALDE, Texas – Families of 19 students and two teachers gunned down this week in a nearly hourlong siege at a Texas elementary school have begun to plan funerals as new details of heroism and horror emerge, and the nation again grapples with the politics and pain of a shocking campus slaughter.
The bodies of nine victims of America’s deadliest school shooting in almost a decade were released to funeral homes Wednesday evening, Judge Lalo Diaz said. The rest would be released by Thursday, he said.
The 18-year-old shooter, identified as Salvador Ramos, allegedly messaged a girl Tuesday about his rampage plan minutes before it unfolded, then got into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, with an AR-15-style rifle and stayed inside for up to an hour. He barricaded himself in a classroom and opened fire on the students and teachers there, officials say, and later was shot and killed by law enforcement.
A first responder on the scene learned his daughter, Amerie Jo Garza, had been killed as he gave medical aid to a student who emerged from the school, Angel Garza said. Hysterical and covered in blood, the girl said she’d seen her best friend killed — and the girl’s name was Amerie.
As the shooting unfolded, his daughter tried to call 911 on the cell phone she’d gotten two weeks ago for her 10th birthday, he said, fighting tears and holding a framed photo of his daughter receiving an honor roll award.
“She just died trying to save her classmates,” Garza said. “She just wanted to save everyone.”
The Uvalde community joins a growing list of Americans devastated by gun violence, particularly school shootings. The massacre at Robb Elementary is at least the 30th school shooting at a K-12 school this year, according to a tally. It is also the deadliest school shooting since 26 people were killed in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary.
Support has flooded the community reeling from Tuesday’s tragedy. People wept and hugged at a Wednesday night vigil as “Amazing Grace” played. Residents of Uvalde, Del Río and other nearby towns also waited at least three hours to donate blood Wednesday to replenish the supply at local hospitals, said Mohammed Sayed, director of donor recruitment for South Texas Blood & Tissue.
“This is something that we don’t take lightly,” said Catherine Alvarez, 20, who stood in line with her mother for hours even though she can’t donate blood due to health reasons. “In this community we are all family and if one is grieving, we are all grieving.”
The tragedy in Uvalde has educed outrage from families of victims of prior gun attacks and officials who say a lack of intervention will only lead to more attacks.
“There’s people there sitting in a same spot in a different community (than) I was. Today, tomorrow, they’ll be at a funeral home, sadly, planning a burial,” Neil Heslin, whose son Jesse died in the Sandy Hook shooting, said.
Families identify loved ones they lost
As funeral arrangements begin, a grief-stricken nation is learning who several of the victims were, including teachers Eva Mireles and Irma Garcia, who had co-taught together for five years.
Garcia, a wife and mother to four children, was “sweet, kind, loving,” according to a GoFundMe campaign set up to raise funds for funeral expenses and family needs. “She sacrificed herself protecting the kids in her classroom. She was a hero. She was loved by many and will truly be missed,” the campaign said.
Mireles had been teaching for 17 years and “was a vivacious soul” who “spread laughter and joy everywhere she went,” relative Amber Ybarra said.
“She made you feel like she was only teaching your child,” said Erica Torres, whose son Stanley was in her third and fourth grade classes. “Like, there’s no other students but him. She made you feel so good.”
José Flores Jr., 10, was also killed in the shooting, his father José Flores Sr. said. He was his mother’s “little shadow,” she said. José Jr. was bursting with energy and loved to play baseball and video games, his father said.
Lexi Rubio, 10, had made the All-A honor roll and gotten a good citizen award just hours before she was shot and killed, her parents Felix and Kimberly Rubio said.
“We told her we loved her and would pick her up after school. We had no idea this was goodbye,” Kimberly Rubio wrote in a post on Facebook.
Nine-year-old Eliana “Ellie” Garcia, was among those killed, family members confirmed to affiliate KHOU. She loved the movie “Encanto,” cheerleading and basketball and dreamed of becoming a teacher, her grandparents, Rogelio Lugo and Nelda Lugo, told the LA Times.
Third-grader Annabell Guadalupe Rodriguez, 10, and her cousin died Tuesday, her family members confirmed to affiliate KHOU. The cousin’s name has not been released.
Shooter sent messages about his intentions before the attack
Before he began his rampage, Ramos allegedly messaged a girl who lives in Germany about his intentions.
He complained his grandmother was “on the phone with AT&T about (sic) my phone,” according to screenshots reviewed and an interview with the 15-year-old girl, whose mother gave permission for her to be interviewed.
“It’s annoying,” he texted her.
Minutes later, he texted: “I just shot my grandma in her head,” immediately followed by the message, “Ima go shoot up a(n) elementary school rn (right now).”
The girl began chatting with Ramos on a social media app on May 9, she said. Ramos sent her selfie videos and talked about a plan to visit her in Europe, videos and text messages show.
The shooter shot his 66-year-old grandmother in the face before driving to the Robb Elementary, where he crashed his car in a nearby ditch, authorities say. The grandmother was in serious condition as of Wednesday, officials said.
Once he arrived at the school, he encountered a school district police officer, dropped a bag of ammunition and entered the school, Sgt. Erick Estrada of the Texas Department of Public Safety said. Ramos then barricaded himself inside two adjoining classrooms and opened fire, DPS Lt. Chris Olivarez said.
The gunman was in the school 40 to 60 minutes before law enforcement forcibly entered and killed him, Texas DPS director Steven McCraw said Wednesday at a news conference.
Ramos was in a standoff with law enforcement for about 30 minutes after firing on students and teachers, said Rep. Tony Gonzales, whose district includes Uvalde.
“And then it stops, and he barricades himself in. That’s where there’s kind of a lull in the action,” Gonzales said. “All of it, I understand, lasted about an hour, but this is where there’s kind of a 30-minute lull. They feel as if they’ve got him barricaded in. The rest of the students in the school are now leaving.”
Ramos was a local high school dropout with no criminal history and no known mental health history, officials said. He had just turned 18 and legally bought two AR-15-style rifles and ammunition for his birthday. His grandfather didn’t know Ramos had guns, he said Wednesday.
“If I had known, I would have reported him,” Rolando Reyes said.
Impact of Uvalde shooting felt nationwide
As the toll of America’s mass shootings grows, survivors and families of victims of prior attacks have mobilized a network to help others deal with the trauma.
“We hold their hands and their broken hearts as long as we can and continue the road with them for the rest of their lives if they want us there,” said Sandy Phillips, who lost her daughter nearly 10 years ago during a mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.
“We always recommend that initially they get the trauma therapy that they’re going to need to treat the PTSD symptoms that they will have from this,” she said. Her son was one of the first responders at Uvalde to help and also had been there the day his sister died.
As Uvalde families are overwhelmed with grief, city officials in Houston are facing calls to cancel the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting there this weekend. But the city cannot cancel its agreement with the NRA, citing contractual obligations, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said.
Still, the mayor urged legislators and officials not to participate in the event and said the NRA should postpone it.
“Certainly they don’t have to come, and I think it would be respectful for the families who are planning funerals for their children for them not to come,” said Turner. “You should not come.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who is scheduled to speak at the NRA conference, argued Wednesday tougher gun laws aren’t a “real solution” and said state officials are discussing how to keep schools safe and address people with mental health challenges.
At his news conference, the governor and other officials were confronted by Democratic gubernatorial nominee Beto O’Rourke.
“This is on you, until you choose to do something different,” O’Rourke said to Abbott, calling the shooting in Uvalde predictable. “This will continue to happen. Somebody needs to stand up for the children of this state or they will continue to be killed, just like they were killed in Uvalde yesterday.”
National-level officials have also spoken out about Tuesday’s shooting, including US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who called it “a reminder that gun violence is a serious public health threat that must be addressed,” according to a statement.
State officials beyond Texas are vowing to act in the wake of the Robb Elementary attack. California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Wednesday state lawmakers plan to fast-track several new gun control bills that would go into effect at the end of next month, he said.
In New York, which was shaken by a mass shooting in Buffalo less than two weeks ago, Gov. Kathy Hochul wants to raise the minimum age to purchase a gun in the state from 18 to 21, she said.
“Am I supposed to just leave all the flags at half-mast? They’re still at half-mast from Buffalo. No, I don’t want to,” Hochul said during a news conference Wednesday. “So, we harness this anger, we talk about what we can do. We work with our legislators.”