(Reuters) - Law enforcement officers in Uvalde, Texas, waited over an hour to storm into the two elementary school classrooms where a gunman was holed up, even though on-scene supervisors knew that some victims were trapped alive inside, The New York Times reported on Thursday.
Citing its review of video footage and other material gathered by investigators, the Times said more than a dozen of the 33 children and three teachers who were originally in the two adjoining classrooms remained alive from the time gunfire began inside to when officers entered and killed the suspect one hour and 17 minutes later.
The school district police chief leading the response appeared from videos and other documentation to have agonized over how long it was taking to obtain protective gear to use when officers charged in, and to find a key to the classroom doors, the Times said.
"People are going to ask why we're taking so long," a man who investigators believe to be Pete Arredondo, chief of the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District's police force, could be heard saying during the siege, according to a transcript of police body-camera footage. "We're trying to preserve the rest of the life."
The May 24 attack at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, a small town in Texas Hill Country about 80 miles west of San Antonio, killed 19 students and two teachers, ranking as the deadliest U.S. school shooting in almost a decade.
According to documents cited by the Times, one of the teachers died in an ambulance and three of the children died at nearby hospitals, heightening questions about whether more lives could have been saved had the victims been reached sooner.
The Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) publicly acknowledged days later that as many as 19 officers had waited about an hour in a hallway outside classrooms 111 and 112 before a U.S. Border Patrol-led tactical team finally made entry.
DPS officials have said that Arredondo made the choice to hold off on sending officers in to neutralize the gunman, believing the immediate threat to students inside had abated after an initial flurry of gunfire in the classrooms.
Two officers were grazed by bullets fired at them as they initially approached one of the classrooms, and no further attempt was made to confront the gunman for another 40 minutes, police have said.
The head of DPS, Steven McGraw, has said the delay was "the wrong decision," acknowledging that at least two fourth-grade girls cowering inside the classrooms placed frantic, whispered phone calls to local emergency-911 dispatchers pleading for police to send help.
It remains unclear whether Arredondo or other officers inside the school learned of those 911 calls, the Times said.
But the newspaper reported that investigative materials show that Arredondo and others at the scene became aware at some point that not everyone inside the classrooms was already dead.
One of six uniformed police officers on Arredondo's school district force, Ruben Ruiz, had rushed to the scene and informed supervisors that his wife, fourth-grade teacher Eva Mireles, was shot but still alive in one of the classrooms after she called him from inside, according to the Times. Mireles later died of her wounds.
The Times said Arredondo did not respond to several requests for comment on its article.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Leslie Adler)