Child survivors of Texas school shooting struggle to shake memories of what they saw, heard

·6 min read
Gabriella Uriegas, a soccer teammate of Tess Mata, who died in the shooting at Robb Elementary School, cries while holding her mother, Geneva Uriegas, as they visit a makeshift memorial outside the Uvalde County Courthouse in Texas. Parents say children who witnessed the shooting or have friends or relatives who died are struggling to process the tragedy. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)
Gabriella Uriegas, a soccer teammate of Tess Mata, who died in the shooting at Robb Elementary School, cries while holding her mother, Geneva Uriegas, as they visit a makeshift memorial outside the Uvalde County Courthouse in Texas. Parents say children who witnessed the shooting or have friends or relatives who died are struggling to process the tragedy. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)

Three days after an 18-year-old gunman walked into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and fired on two classrooms full of fourth-graders, and as officials admitted police waited too long to enter the classrooms and stop him, the devastating and life-altering impact on the children who survived and the relatives of those killed is apparent throughout the small, tight-knit town.

On the same day that news emerged that Joe Garcia, the husband of Irma Garcia, one of two teachers killed, along with 19 students Tuesday, had suffered a fatal heart attack shortly after coming to the school to lay flowers in honour of his wife, survivors, friends, relatives and complete strangers continued to stream to several memorial sites around town, leaving piles of bouquets, stuffed animals, mementos and hand-scrawled messages that grew as the day wore on.

Accompanied by his mom and sister, nine-year-old Fernando Rodriguez came to lay flowers at the front of Robb Elementary. He was in one of the school's classrooms when Salvador Ramos walked in through an unlocked door at the back of the building at 11:33 a.m. local time and started shooting, making his way through two adjoining classrooms and firing more than 100 rounds from an AR-15 rifle before he was fatally shot by a border patrol agent.

WATCH | Student, 9, recalls 'hearing the gunshots':

Fernando doesn't recall how long he stayed hidden after his teacher told him and his classmates "to hide and be quiet so they don't get us." He didn't lay eyes on the gunman, but what he heard has stayed with him.

"I just remember hearing the gunshots, the shooter shooting everywhere," he told CBC's Makda Ghebreslassie Thursday, his faint, fragile voice quivering as he fought 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 police broke the window," Fernando said.

WATCH | Officials admit police waited too long to enter Texas classroom:

Hiding in the bathroom

Nine-year-old Albriella Melchior also heard the gunshots. She was about to come out of the bathroom, which doesn't have entrance doors, when she heard shooting.

"He shot before he passed the restroom, so she ended up having the chance to run back into a bathroom stall," said her mother, Celeste Ivarra. "She was just ducked down, and she was looking out and she said she saw him passing by, just shooting. That's when he shot the teacher."

Albriella stayed in the bathroom alone for about 15 minutes before two officers with the Uvalde County Sheriff's Department went in and called out, asking if anyone was inside.

Pete Luna/Uvalde Leader-News
Pete Luna/Uvalde Leader-News

"She didn't answer until the second time they asked," Ivarra, 30, said. "She saw that there were badges and she said, 'I'm here' and they grabbed her. If she would have walked out, he [the gunman] would have took her."

Ivarra, who operates several cattle ranches and a concrete business in the area, said the experience has left her daughter shaken — so much so that she couldn't convince her to come lay flowers at one of the white wooden crosses that make up a memorial to the victims in the town square.

The cross is in honour of Albriella's best friend, Eli Garcia, who did not survive.

"She's scared," Ivarra said of her daughter's reluctance to come to the site. "She won't sleep without me. She showers in my restroom. She doesn't eat. She thinks he's going to come back for her. She saw him running, shooting — she's never seen or heard gunshots before."

Kazi Stastna/CBC
Kazi Stastna/CBC

Therapy dogs help kids 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 Thursday.

Jennifer Mittleman and her colleague Becky Langer came to the site with three dogs trained to provide comfort to those who have experienced trauma or loss. They are part of a non-profit organization based in New Jersey 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 said was a racially motivated hate crime.

Kazi Stastna/CBC
Kazi Stastna/CBC

"We've had the dogs out and meeting with some of the families and children who were actually present in the schools when the shooting happened," said Mittleman.

As three-year-old Judah Perez, 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 talked about the comfort such interactions can provide.

"Even if it's for five minutes … they just get to sit and feel normal again and pet a dog," she said. "We don't have to talk. A dog doesn't judge. A dog isn't expecting a specific response from a family member, a child, a first responder."

WATCH | Therapy dogs bring comfort to traumatized kids:

A panicked wait for parents

The Perez siblings came to the memorial with their aunt, Miia Arango, who was at a local hospital Tuesday when she overheard an alert about the shooting at Robb Elementary go out over the radio of a police officer who happened to be at the hospital. She raced to Noah's school, which was not Robb Elementary — but at the time, it was believed other schools might be at risk.

She ended up waiting for five hours outside the school with other parents as students sheltered inside preemptively before the threat was declared over.

WATCH | Parents demand accountability in wake of shooting:

"We were just waiting for our kids, panicked. We didn't know what was going on," said Arango. "Finally, when the threat was over, and we did pick him up, all the kids were just traumatized. My nephew was pale. He was in shock. He couldn't even hear me."

She said she's glad for the therapy dogs and other support services, such as counsellors, that have streamed into Uvalde.

"We do appreciate everybody that's coming down and giving us the resources to process … because although kids, you know, don't really fully grasp what's going on, they still have feelings and they still hear what's going on."

Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

'It shouldn't have happened'

Maria Martinez, 48, and her daughter Jamie, 18, were among those who came to provide some of that support. They drove 450 kilometres from Houston to drop off flowers at Robb Elementary, which remains blocked off by police, but officers are placing flowers around the school sign out front on behalf of those coming to pay their respects.

"This hits home," Martinez said. "I lost my son due to gun violence, and I'm upset that this is happening. These kids had a whole life ahead of them."

Carly Thomas/CBC
Carly Thomas/CBC

She said she's angry that Ramos was able to get a hold of guns, including two semi-automatic rifles and 1,675 rounds of ammunition, according to law enforcement officials.

"I really blame the governor," she said, referring to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who has resisted calls to pass stricter gun control laws. "This wouldn't be happening if anybody couldn't just buy a gun. It shouldn't have happened."

WATCH | Children, gun control advocates protest outside NRA convention:

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