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Emotions raw in Uvalde, Texas, as residents grieve victims of school shooting

Nearly everyone in the town of Uvalde, Texas, and the surrounding area knows someone who was involved in the mass shooting that took the lives of 19 children and two teachers at a local elementary school.

Most in small south Texas town had some connection to local elementary school where mass shooting took place

Lee Luna, 26, a gas station clerk in Uvalde, Texas, dropped by the store Tuesday to pick something up when he heard shots fired at Robb Elementary School, initially mistaking them for loud hammering. (Kazi Stastna/CBC)

Lee Luna heard what he thought was the rat-a-tat-tat of loud hammering a few blocks away from the gas station where he works.

Jennifer Gaitan saw police cruisers speed past her house toward her daughter's school.

Francisco Ayala was en route home from his truck driving job when he caught sight of a worrying newscast in a San Antonio hotel and set out immediately for home.

By the end of the day Tuesday, few in Uvalde, Texas, were left untouched by the mass shooting that claimed the lives of 19 children and two teachers at a local elementary school.

This town of 16,000 sits about 100 kilometres from the Mexican border in south Texas. It's a predominantly Latino community of modest bungalows and a handful of businesses surrounded by sprawling ranch land and mesquite trees as far as the eye can see.

"Uvalde is a small town. Everyone knows everybody," said Tim Wiginton, 37, a border patrol agent who's lived there for seven years. 

"So whether you were directly impacted [by the school shooting] or you know someone who was there, whose kids were there, first responders who responded — everyone knows someone that was connected with it," he said.

Tim Wiginton is a border patrol agent who lives in Uvalde. Some of his colleagues responded to the shooting Tuesday. (Kazi Stastna/CBC)

Some of Wiginton's colleagues, members of an elite border patrol tactical unit known as BORTAC, responded to the shooting at Robb Elementary and were the ones who eventually killed the gunman.

The border agents have a station in Uvalde that oversees 7,800 square kilometres of south Texas and has about 140 officers. The city police, by comparison, have 39 and the school district's police department only four.

"Honestly, we're probably the most prepared agency," Wiginton said, explaining why border patrol responded to a school shooting. "We train more than the majority of agencies. ... We're just moments away. We have more manpower."

Wiginton said a lot of border agents had children or other relatives attending or working at the school. 

"Some of them lost family members over there."

Police have blocked off access to Robb Elementary School while the investigation into the shooting is ongoing. (Kazi Stastna/CBC)

'She witnessed and heard so much'

Jennifer Gaitan, 30, came face to face with some of the officers when she rushed to Robb Elementary on Tuesday morning to check on her nine-year-old daughter, Jazlynn, and tried to push past the cordon of police meant to keep anxious parents at bay.

"I had a cop that was pushing me back, and he was ready to arrest me," Gaitan said Wednesday. "And I'm yelling at him like, 'Don't worry about us ... go get the kids.' But they took over an hour."

Gaitan said she lives a few blocks from the school and was one of the first parents on the scene around 11:30 a.m. local time, but that it was close to 1 p.m. before her daughter was freed from inside the school.

"It was horrifying for me, and I was outside. I could just imagine for her," Gaitan said.

She said it was the actions of her daughter's Grade 4 teacher that gave Jazlynn a fighting chance.

Uvalde residents sport Robb Elementary School colours at a prayer vigil at the fairgrounds on the edge of town Wednesday. The event was attended by religious leaders and local and state officials, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. (Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press)

"When [the gunman] went in the back door, her room was the first door. He opened that door, but with [the teacher's] quick thinking, she told them to turn off the lights and to get down, and he thought nobody was in there. That teacher saved my daughter's life."

Still, she's worried about the impact on Jazlynn's mental health. 

"She witnessed and heard so much," Gaitan said through tears. "She's traumatized."

That's why Gaitan brought Jazlynn to a prayer vigil Wednesday evening at the sprawling fairgrounds on the outskirts of town, where hundreds of residents from Uvalde and as far away as San Antonio — as well as state and local politicians and religious leaders — gathered to console each other.

"Right before we came over here, I asked [Jazlynn], 'You know, are you OK? Please, just talk to me,' and my daughter's never grabbed me so hard. And she let it out," Gaitan said. "She just said she couldn't stop picturing it in her head, everything she heard, everything she saw. It's horrifying."

A taqueria in Uvalde. The town is surrounded by open road and vast ranch lands. (Kazi Stastna/CBC)

Vigil brings relief for some

Francisco Ayala was at Wednesday's vigil with his daughter Hermione and shared a similarly agonizing experience of waiting for news of his children. Ayala lives in Batesville, but four of his children attend either middle or high school in Uvalde.

A truck driver who travels all across North America, he was in San Antonio and on his way home for his son's high school graduation when he heard news of a school shooting and feared his children might be in danger. 

"Nobody was answering the phone because they were all rushing over here [to Uvalde], and I had no clue what was going on," he said.

Truck driver Francisco Ayala is seen with his daughter Hermione. He lives in Batesville, about 30 kilometres south of Uvalde, but has four kids who attend school in town. He initially feared their schools were involved in the shooting. (Kazi Stastna/CBC)

He later found them safe at the local civic centre but learned that a member of his wife's family was among the children killed.

He said that Wednesday night's vigil brought some relief, but that for now, he's giving those who are suffering their space.

"We're just letting everybody grieve by themselves, the way they want to, with their immediate family, [and] I'm just staying with my grieving family at this time," he said.

The trauma of the shooting extends beyond those in the classrooms who experienced it first hand. Parents, too, are haunted by what they witnessed.

Justin Rodriguez, an Uvalde resident whose nephew was grazed in the shooting, got this tattoo in the wake of the tragedy. (Jason Burles/CBC)

"It's just very hard to see, and it's gonna stay in my head forever," said Justin Rodriguez, 23, who works at a recycling facility. "I couldn't sleep last night. I tried to sleep for five minutes. I woke up every minute. Just people shouting and shouting, screaming in pain."

On Tuesday, he saw his 11-year-old nephew, who was in one of the two classrooms the gunman targeted and had been grazed by a bullet, come out of the school, but Rodriguez couldn't get to him.

"He saw multiple of his classmates … get shot at," said Rodriguez. "He tried saving this young little girl. He could not save her. He wanted to, he really wanted to."

WATCH | Texas town grieves young victims, devoted teachers:

Texas town mourns students, teachers killed in school shooting

3 months ago
Duration 3:04
In Uvalde, Texas, residents are coming together to grieve the loss of 19 elementary school students and two teachers killed in a mass shooting on Tuesday, pleading for an end to gun violence.

Not ready to analyze, speculate

Some of those who spoke with CBC said their children or siblings had attended a local high school with the shooter and his sister, but emotions in the town were still too raw for most to speculate about what might have motivated him. Some didn't want to talk about the event at all.

"It's just sad, you know what I mean?" said one young man coming out of a convenience store when approached for an interview. "I was at Robb when the kids were running out. I was there, but I just don't want to think about it."

A Texas state trooper takes flowers from two people near Robb Elementary School. Access to the school has been blocked off while the investigation into the shooting continues. (Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press)

On Wednesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott shifted the blame for the shooting on chronic mental health issues, saying the local sheriff and others had told him ​​they "have a problem with mental health illness in this community."

Some Uvalde residents took issue with that characterization.

"He doesn't know. He's never around any of … these little towns. He's always in, like, the bigger cities," said Lee Luna, 26, whose best friend lost his 10-year-old cousin, Xavier Javier Lopez, in the shooting. 

Xavier's mother was so distraught after learning he'd been killed that she suffered a heart attack and had to be taken to hospital, Luna said.

"My best friend, his family is like my family, and that's his little cousin. [He] cried yesterday. It was messed up."

Luna said his younger brother and sister attended high school with the gunman, but that he couldn't offer much insight into his psyche.

"Some people are just wired different," Luna said. "Some people just go through so much, they just retaliate in different ways."

Luna, who grew up in Uvalde and attended Robb Elementary himself, said the town has never seen this kind of gun violence.

"There's gangs around here and stuff, but not like that, where they shoot up innocent kids."

WATCH | Details emerging about Robb Elementary gunman:

What we know about the gunman in the Texas school shooting

3 months ago
Duration 3:11
Friends of Salvador Ramos, the gunman in the Texas school shooting, say he was a troubled high school dropout who had a fascination for guns.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kazi Stastna

Senior Producer

Kazi Stastna is a senior producer with CBCNews.ca. She has worked as a features writer and copy editor with CBC's digital news team for over a decade. Prior to that, she was at the Montreal Gazette and worked as a reporter and editor in Germany and the Czech Republic.

With files from Susan Ormiston

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