By NATHAN ELLGREN, ADRIANA GOMEZ LICON and JIM SALTER
UVALDE, Texas (AP) — The pallbearers wore white shirts and gloves. The desert-brown church with the tall bell tower was filled to overflowing. The casket held a 10-year-old girl who loved purple.
On Tuesday afternoon, hundreds of mourners turned out for the funeral Mass for Amerie Jo Garza, a smiling fourth-grader who was killed a week ago when 18-year-old Salvador Ramos stormed into her Uvalde, Texas elementary school and opened fire on her classroom. Amerie’s funeral was the first since the massacre, with Maite Rodriguez’s scheduled for later Tuesday at an Uvalde funeral home.
Nineteen more funerals are planned for the next two-and-a-half weeks for the 19 children and two teachers who were killed in that classroom on May 24.
Mourner Erika Santiago, her husband and their two children wore purple shirts adorned with images of the victims to Amerie’s funeral. She described Amerie as “a nice little girl who smiled a lot,” and who was “so humble and charismatic but full of life.”
Santiago said her 10-year-old son, Adriel, watched in horror when news reports first showed images of people killed and he recognized his friends Amerie and Maite.
“He told me he did not want to go to school fearing that could happen,” Santiago said. “He told me, ‘Mom, I just don’t feel safe.’”
Visitation for one of the teachers, 48-year-old Irma Garcia, also was Tuesday, along with visitations for children Nevaeh Bravo and Jose Flores Jr.
Vincent Salazar’s 11-year-old daughter, Layla, has the last of the scheduled services — her visitation is June 15 with the funeral the following day. Salazar said the family likely won’t see Layla’s body until soon before the visitation.
“I understand there were other children as well, but we’re just waiting to get her back,” Salazar said. “That’s all we’re focused on.”
Uvalde County Justice of the Peace Eulalio “Lalo” Diaz Jr. said the bodies of all 21 victims were first sent to the medical examiner’s office in San Antonio for autopsies, which he said is standard for a major crime. Then, because there isn’t enough space at Uvalde’s two funeral homes, many bodies were sent to out-of-town funeral homes until services near. The Uvalde funeral homes are working with the families on when they can see their loved ones, he said.
“It’s mainly because of the number of victims,” Diaz said, asking: “Where do you store that many people?”
Diaz said the autopsies are complete. He declined to discuss preliminary results and said final reports will take three to four months.
Vincent Salazar said he and his family are going to as many visitations as they can to pay respects to the other victims and their families.
“Not necessarily going to the funerals because we’re still taking care of things hour by hour, day by day, here,” Salazar said. “We’ve got so much stuff going on with our own. You have to set everything up — obituaries, death certificates, funeral arrangements.
“That’s all we’re focused on right now — her, getting her back and being able to put her to rest,” Salazar said of Layla. “That’s it.”
Investigators continue to seek answers about how police responded to the shooting, and the U.S. Department of Justice is reviewing law enforcement actions.
The blame for an excruciating delay in killing the gunman — even as parents outside begged police to rush in and panicked children called 911 from inside — was placed on the school district’s homegrown police chief, Pete Arredondo, after the director of state police said Arredondo made the “wrong decision” not to breach the classroom, believing the gunman was barricaded inside and children weren’t at risk.
Steven McCraw, head of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said Friday that after following the gunman into the building, officers waited over an hour to breach the classroom. The revelation raised new questions about whether lives were lost because officers did not act faster to stop the gunman, who was ultimately killed by Border Patrol tactical officers.
State police said Tuesday that the teacher who at one point propped open an exterior door to the school had closed it before the gunman used it to get inside.
However, the door did not lock, police said. Authorities had originally said Ramos came in through the door she’d propped open.
Instead, investigators said the teacher, who has not been identified, closed the propped-open door when she realized there was a shooter on campus and ran to get her phone and call 911, said Travis Considine, chief communications officer for the Texas Department of Public Safety. Investigators are looking into why the door didn’t lock.
Jacob Albarado, an off-duty Border Patrol agent who rushed to the school with a shotgun borrowed from his barber, said Tuesday it was chaotic when he arrived in search of his daughter and wife. Both were physically unharmed in the attack, he said.
“To me, I believe everyone there was doing the best that they could given the circumstances,” he told NBC’s “Today Show.” “I believe everyone there was doing everything in their power.”
Authorities have said Ramos legally purchased two guns not long before the school attack: an AR-style rifle on May 17 and a second rifle on May 20. He had just turned 18, permitting him to buy the weapons under federal law.
President Joe Biden’s long-planned meeting Tuesday with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern shifted to gun control after what happened in Uvalde and a week earlier in Buffalo, New York, where 10 Black people were killed by a shooter espousing racist “ replacement theory. ”
Ardern won passage of gun control measures after a white supremacist killed 51 Muslim worshippers at two Christchurch mosques in 2019. Less than a month later all but one of the country’s 120 lawmakers voted in favor of banning military-style semiautomatic weapons.
Biden told reporters that he “will meet with the Congress on guns, I promise you,” but the White House has acknowledged that winning new gun legislation will be an uphill climb in an evenly divided Congress.
Salter reported from O’Fallon, Missouri.
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