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Uvalde: 90 minutes of terror, a failed police response and shattered trust

UVALDE, Tex. — After slipping into Robb Elementary through an unlocked side entrance, 18-year-old Salvador Rolando Ramos stormed into adjoining classrooms and informed terrified fourth graders that it was “time to die.”

“Good night,” Ramos said, before shooting and killing a teacher.

Students were next, according to witness accounts. Children who had been watching “Lilo & Stitch” scrambled for hiding places. Hot shrapnel burned through the dressy outfits some had worn for an awards ceremony earlier on the morning of May 24. One girl smeared herself with a classmate’s blood and played dead.

The attack went on for so long, witnesses said, that the gunman had time to taunt his victims before killing them, even putting on songs that one student described to CNN as “I-want-people-to-die music.” As the minutes ticked by, increasingly desperate students called 911.

At 12:03 p.m., a girl called 911 for a little over a minute and whispered that she was in Room 112, according to Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven C. McCraw. She called back at 12:10 p.m. reporting multiple people dead, he said, and again a few minutes later, to say there were still a number of students alive.

“Please send the police now,” the girl begged the dispatcher at 12:43 p.m., 40 minutes after her first call.

More time would lapse before authorities finally entered and killed Ramos just before 1 p.m. By then, the gunman had turned a sleepy afternoon at the end of the school year into a 90-minute massacre — an attack prolonged and worsened by the failure of security measures and a catastrophically slow response from authorities in this southern Texas town.

In all, 19 children and two teachers were killed, with another 17 people wounded, a devastating toll for a small, tightly woven, largely Hispanic community where it was common for relatives to be in the same class at school. In the days that followed, local heartbreak bubbled into rage as Texas officials waxed on about police bravery, glossing over law enforcement missteps that took days to acknowledge.

Timeline: How police responded to the Texas school shooter

Only now, a more reliable chronology is emerging through official statements, 911 logs, social media posts, and interviews with survivors and witnesses. The revelations tell a story of institutional failure at the expense of unprotected children. Here in Uvalde, there is little expectation that correcting the record will lead to any real policy change, especially with hyperpartisan midterm elections looming.

“I mean, there’s protests on gun laws and stuff, background checks, but it doesn’t go anywhere,” said Angel Flores, 17, speaking at a San Antonio hospital where she was visiting two relatives who were taken there after being shot in Uvalde.

“Sandy Hook happened, what, 10 years ago?” said Angel’s father, 37-year-old David Flores, referring to the 2012 mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. “It’s the same thing, down the road again. Nothing changes.”

Ninety minutes of terror

On Tuesday morning, Dora and Bob Estrada settled in to watch their favorite daytime soap, “The Bold and the Beautiful.”

While waiting for her show to start, Dora heard two popping sounds from the direction of Robb Elementary across the street. She told her husband she thought it was gunfire.

“He said, ‘No, that can’t be,’” Dora recalled. “I said, ‘No, that is shots.’”

Dora worried about her grandson, Jayden, a second grader at Robb. A short time later, her daughter, Jayden’s mother, called to warn her parents to lock their door; she’d heard of an active-shooter threat. The Estradas decided to go outside and check on the school and noticed “a bunch of cops on the corner.”

“They were just standing there,” Dora said.

Given the time frame, those first pops Dora heard likely came from early shots Ramos fired as soon as he arrived at the school at 11:28 a.m., targeting people on the street who heard him crash his truck into a ditch and were coming to his aid. Minutes earlier he had shot his 66-year-old grandmother in the face at their nearby home, took her vehicle and drove the short distance to Robb Elementary. The grandmother survived and called 911; authorities have not released the exact timing or content of her 911 call.

New details have dispelled earlier accounts of a confrontation between the gunman and an armed school police officer outside the school, a story the authorities changed four times. First, officials said the gunman exchanged fire with the officer outside the school before going in. Later, McCraw said that there was an encounter, but no gunshots were exchanged between the two. On Thursday, officials said there had been no confrontation at all and that the gunman had simply walked in. On Friday, McCraw added that the school police officer was not on campus but rushed there after the 911 call about a man with a gun at the crash.

“He drove right by the suspect,” who was crouched behind a vehicle in the parking lot, and mistook a teacher for an intruder, McCraw said.

Ramos entered the school at 11:33 a.m. through a back door that should have been locked but had been propped open, authorities said. The shooter walked to the rear of the building, turned down a hall and began firing into classrooms 111 and 112, authorities said, unloading more than 100 rounds of ammunition in those first moments.

At the sound of gunshots, children and staff in other parts of the building began streaming out of the school, some heading for safety in a nearby funeral home. Others didn’t have time to run.

In Room 109, teacher Elsa Avila rushed to lock the door and turn off the lights. She told her students to hide under their desks, recalled a 9-year-old survivor, Daniel, whose mother asked that his last name not be used.

Daniel saw Ramos approach the window of his classroom door and shoot through the glass, striking Avila and another student a few feet away from him. Daniel said he and others were “playing dead” inside the classroom because they feared he could see them.

Bullets zinged around the classroom, with one fragment striking a fellow student’s nose. Daniel recalled a “crunching” sound as it struck bone. Stymied by the locked door, Ramos moved back down the hallway, returning to Rooms 111 and 112, the adjoining classrooms.

McCraw said that three officers with the Uvalde Police Department were the first officers into the school and that two received grazing wounds at that time from Ramos.

McCraw said Ramos had locked the doors to Rooms 111 and 112 but briefly re-emerged into the hall — at a time McCraw did not specify, but this is likely when those in Room 109 were shot at — before locking himself in the adjoining classrooms again.

Gunfire was heard at 11:37 a.m., 11:38 a.m., 11:40 a.m. and 11:44 a.m., McCraw said.

Four more local officers — from the police department and county sheriff’s office — arrived, according to McCraw, at a time he did not say.

None of the officers attempted to enter Rooms 111 and 112 and engage the gunman, officials said.

Tiny school police force in Uvalde took charge, then failed to go in

By at least 12:15 p.m. McCraw said, “as many as 19″ law enforcement officers had converged on a school hallway, including Border Patrol tactical team members who arrived with shields.

“There was plenty of officers to do whatever needed to be done,” McCraw said. But the incident commander believed more equipment and people were needed for a “breach,” McCraw said, and he added that there was a sense that law enforcement “had time” and saw “no kids at risk.”

At almost exactly the same time, the student in Room 112 called again. She said eight or nine students were alive. Three minutes later, at 12:19 p.m., a student in Room 111 called 911 but hung up at the urging of another student, McCraw said. At 12:21 p.m., he said, three shots could be heard over the 911 line.

As the attack was underway, frantic parents began showing up at Robb after receiving active-shooter alerts. The scene outside the police cordon grew tense as families demanded to know why officers weren’t storming into the building to save their children. Video shows distraught families pacing, rushing the cordon, cursing at officers.

Video streamed live on May 24, shows families outside Robb Elementary school in Uvalde, Tex., frustrated with police and trying to get into the building. (Video: Anonymous via Storyful)

Dany Reyz, 51, heard about the gunfire at his repair shop half a mile from Robb, where his grandson and six nieces and nephews are enrolled. He immediately drove over, arriving around 11:40 a.m., according to phone logs that detail the frantic calls he was making as he looked for a place to park.

When he made it to the scene, Reyz said, more than a dozen parents already were huddled near the entrance of the school, demanding that officers do more to intervene. On the east side of the building, he said, another group of parents were trying to push through a fence to get inside the school, but were being repelled by police.

Felix Rubio, 39, a relative of Reyz, heard enraged parents tell officers to “go do your f----- job.” When authorities insisted they were doing their jobs, Rubio said, a man yelled for them to, “get your f----- rifle and handle business.”

The distraught parents could do nothing but wait, trusting that authorities were doing all they could to protect students.

“Six-year-old kids in there,” lamented one man in a video taken outside the school that day. “They don’t know how to defend themselves from a shooter.”

By the time authorities declared the attack over, just after 1 p.m., the Estradas had found their grandson’s teacher and learned that he was safe. Reyz’s grandson and nephews also got out, but a niece, 9-year-old Eliana Garcia, was shot and killed.

Some parents only learned their children were dead hours later, at a local civic center where families were asked to wait for updates and, in some cases, submit DNA samples to help identify victims. Over and over, witnesses said, parents were led to a private room where authorities broke the news.

The families’ screams could be heard from outside the building.

Aftermath and accountability

Even for a nation hardened by the frequency of mass shootings, the tragedy in Uvalde seemed too much to bear. News anchors wept on live TV. Families eulogized slain children in widely shared social media posts, drawing Americans into a visceral experience of grief.

At a news conference the day after the attack, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), flanked by state law enforcement officials, mourned the deaths but praised law enforcement for what he described as a brave response that likely saved lives. The event was briefly interrupted by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke, who was removed while heckling Abbott about lax gun laws.

The governor’s praise for law enforcement agencies also didn’t sit well with Robb Elementary parents who had video evidence showing how they pleaded with officers to go inside the school. Fact-checkers found other holes and inaccuracies, and soon the official story collapsed in what one cable-news anchor called “a Texas-sized mess.”

What school shootings do to the kids who survive them, from Sandy Hook to Uvalde

On Friday, Abbott backed off his earlier remarks, saying he was livid about being “misled.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) initially praised the police response to the Robb Elementary School shooting but on May 27 said he was "misled" by false information. (Video: The Washington Post)

McCraw said an incident commander in charge of the police response made “the wrong decision” when he stopped treating the gunman as an active shooter and instead viewed him as a “barricaded subject” as his shots became less frequent.

An off-duty Border Patrol tactical agent from the agency’s BORTAC unit was the first of several agents to arrive outside the classroom around 12:15 p.m., according to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share preliminary details of the investigation. Local police and other officers assembled in the hallway told the agent the shooter was barricaded inside the classroom, which the agent described as “quiet,” according to the official.

“They have not told me they were frustrated,” the official said, of the decision not to go after the shooter. “But they told me it was hard to discern who was in charge.”

The agents did not have a battering ram or breaching tools. A U.S. Marshal on the scene provided the agents with a ballistic shield, the official said.

McCraw said Friday that officers finally used keys they got from a janitor to unlock the classroom doors. When the team finally moved on the shooter, they found him hiding in a closet in Room 111. He came out firing as the Border Patrol tactical agents entered the room behind the ballistic shield.

One of the BORTAC agents was grazed on the head, and took some shrapnel in the foot, but wounds were light. The agents saw children piled up around the room, huddled together, some still alive but many deceased, the official said.

“It hurts to think there are many things that they didn’t do,” said Joe Rodriguez, 64, who was heading to Robb Elementary on Friday to drop flowers off at a wooden cross to memorialize his granddaughter, Tess Mata.

“They could have saved her,” Rodriguez said. “They could have saved some lives.”

At the memorial on Uvalde’s Main Street, Amanda Flores said she knew all 21 victims. Some were close family friends while others were friends of her grandchildren, one of whom was at Robb Elementary on the day of the shooting.

Flores said she was hesitant to criticize the law enforcement response — she said Uvalde is proud of its police force, and is also home to scores of Customs and Border Protection agents. She said one of her close friends, a border agent, sprang from the barber’s chair in the middle of a haircut to respond to the shooting.

Still, Flores said, there’s no getting around the hard facts of the law enforcement response: “We needed the help ASAP for our kids, and it wasn’t there.”

Teo Armus and Peter Jamison in Uvalde.; Joanna Slater in Williamstown, Mass.; Jon Swaine in New York; Kim Bellware in Chicago; and Nick Miroff, Hannah Knowles, Joyce Sohyun Lee and Timothy Bella in Washington contributed to this report.

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