Three days after an 18-year-old gunman walked into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and shot two classrooms full of third and fourth graders, and as officials admitted police waited too long to enter classrooms and arrest him, the devastating and heartbreaking impact on the children who survived and the loved ones of those killed is evident throughout the tight-knit small town.
The same day the news broke, Joe Garcia, the husband of Irma Garcia, one of the two teachers killed, along with 19 students on Tuesday, had suffered a fatal heart attack shortly after coming to school to lay flowers in honor of his wife, survivors, friends, relatives and complete strangers continued to flock to several memorial sites around the city, leaving piles of bouquets, stuffed animals, keepsakes and hand-scribbled messages that grew as the day progressed.
Accompanied by his mother and sister, nine-year-old Fernando Rodriguez came to lay flowers in front of Robb Elementary. He was in one of the school’s classrooms when Salvador Ramos entered through an unlocked door at the back of the building around 11:40 a.m. local time and began shooting, crossing two classrooms adjacent and firing over 100 rounds before he was fatally shot by a Border Patrol agent.
WATCH | A 9-year-old student remembers “hearing the gunshots”:
Fernando doesn’t remember how long he stayed in hiding after his teacher told him and his classmates to “hide and shut up so they wouldn’t catch us”. He didn’t see the shooter, but what he heard stuck with him.
“I just remember hearing the shots, the shooter shooting everywhere,” he told CBC’s Makda Ghebreslassie on Thursday, his weak, fragile voice shaking as he held back tears.
He said officers eventually rescued his class and took them to a church across from the school.
“I was able to get out because the police broke the window,” Fernando said.
WATCH | Officials admit police waited too long to enter a classroom in Texas:
Hide in the bathroom
Nine-year-old Albriella Melchior also heard the shots and saw the shooter walk past the bathroom where she was when the shooting began.
“He fired before going to the toilet, so she ended up having the chance to go back to a toilet cubicle,” said her mother, Celeste Ivarra. “She was just down, and she was looking outside and she said she saw him go by, just shooting. That’s when he shot the professor.”
Albriella was left alone in the bathroom for about 15 minutes before two officers from the Uvalde County Sheriff’s Department came in and called, asking if anyone was inside.
“She didn’t answer until the second time they asked,” said Ivarra, 30. “She saw there were badges and she said, ‘I’m here’ and they grabbed her. If she was out, he [the gunman] would have taken it.”
Ivarra, who operates several cattle ranches and a concrete business in the area, said the experience shook her daughter – so much so that she couldn’t convince her to come and lay flowers on one. white wooden crosses that make up a memorial to the victims in the town square.
The cross is in honor of Albriella’s friend, Eli Garcia, who did not survive.
“She’s scared,” Ivarra said of her daughter’s reluctance to come to the site. “She doesn’t sleep without me. She showers in my toilet. She does not eat. She thinks he will come back for her…. She has never seen or heard gunshots before.
Therapy dogs help children cope
Ivarra was among dozens of parents, classmates and out-of-town visitors who came to pay their respects and lay mounds of flowers at the foot of the 21 crosses at the memorial site on Thursday.
Jennifer Mittleman and her colleague Becky Langer came to the site with three trained dogs to comfort those who have experienced trauma or loss. They are part of a New Jersey-based nonprofit called Crisis Response Canines and had just returned from Buffalo, where a gunman killed 10 people at a supermarket on May 14 in what police say was a crime. racist hatred.
“We took the dogs out and met some of the families and children who were actually in the schools when the shooting happened,” Mittleman said.
As Judah Perez, three, his sister, Nuri, 6, and their brother Noah, 9, knelt down to pet and play with a German Shepherd named Tarik and a black Lab named Exon, Mittleman spoke of the comfort that such interactions can bring.
“Even if it’s for five minutes…they can just sit down and feel normal again and pet a dog,” she said. “We don’t need to talk. A dog doesn’t judge. A dog doesn’t expect a specific response from a family member, a child, a first responder.”
WATCH | Therapy dogs bring comfort to traumatized children:
A panicked wait for parents
The Perez siblings came to the memorial with their aunt, Miia Arango, who was at a local hospital on Tuesday when she heard an alert about the shooting at Robb Elementary over the radio from a police officer who was at the hospital . She ran to Noah’s school, which was not Robb Elementary – but at the time it was thought other schools might be at risk.
She ended up waiting five hours outside the school with other parents as students took shelter inside preemptively before the threat was declared over.
WATCH | Parents demand accountability after shooting:
“We were waiting for our children, panicked. We didn’t know what was going on,” Arango said. “Finally, when the threat stopped and we got him back, all the kids were just traumatised. My nephew was pale. He was in shock. He couldn’t even hear me.”
She said she was happy for the therapy dogs and other support services, such as counselors, who have flocked to Uvalde.
“We appreciate anyone who comes to give us the resources to process…because even though the kids, you know, don’t really understand what’s going on, they still have feelings and they still hear what’s going on.”
“It shouldn’t have happened”
Maria Martinez, 48, and her daughter Jamie, 18, were among those who came out to provide some of that support. They traveled 450 miles from Houston to lay flowers at Robb Elementary, which remains blocked by police, but officers are placing flowers around the school sign out front on behalf of those coming to pay their respects.
“It hits home,” Martinez said. “I lost my son to gun violence, and I’m upset that this is happening. These kids had a whole life ahead of them.”
She said she was angry that Ramos was able to get his hands on firearms, including two semi-automatic rifles and 375 rounds, according to law enforcement officials.
“I really blame the governor,” she said, referring to Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who resisted calls for tougher gun control laws. “It wouldn’t happen if someone couldn’t just buy a gun. It shouldn’t have happened.”
WATCH | Children and gun control advocates demonstrate outside the NRA convention: