Texas law enforcement agencies are facing escalating criticism over their response to the mass shooting at Robb elementary school in Uvalde, after it emerged that the gunman remained locked inside a classroom for up to an hour while large numbers of police officers massed outside the room without taking any action.
At a press conference on Thursday afternoon, Texas authorities confirmed that the shooter had been locked inside a classroom for an hour before he was confronted and killed. He committed all his 21 murders inside that room – including 19 children and two teachers.
“Numerous” police officers had assembled just outside the room, the authorities admitted, but did not make any attempt to break through the door during that hour. Instead, they decided to pull back and wait until a specialist tactical unit arrived, while evacuating other children and staff from the building.
Victor Escalon, the south Texas regional director of the state’s department of public safety, told the press conference that armed officers arrived at Robb elementary about four minutes after the shooter entered through an unlocked side door at about 11.40am on Tuesday. Yet it was “approximately an hour later” that a tactical team of US border patrol arrived at the school, burst into the classroom and killed the gunman.
Asked whether the police officers could have broken into the classroom earlier than an hour into the massacre, Escalon replied: “There are a lot of possibilities. There were numerous officers at that classroom. Once we interview all those officers we’ll have a better idea.”
Escalon appeared to admit that mistakes might have been made when he alluded to the small-town nature of Uvalde, a community of about 20,000 residents close to the Mexican border. “Could anyone have gone [into the classroom] sooner? You have to understand, this is a small town,” he said.
The law enforcement chief’s account of the timeline of the massacre came as the police faced growing pressure to explain how such a devastating gun rampage could have been allowed to unfold over such an exceptional length of time. Hours earlier, it emerged that parents of children trapped inside the school during the rampage had pleaded with officers to do more to stop the carnage even as it was happening.
The Associated Press reported that as the massacre was unfolding, several parents and other local people expressed distress at the apparent hesitation of law enforcement to storm the school. Juan Carranza, who lives beside the school, told the news agency he witnessed women shouting at officers: “Go in there! Go in there!”
Javier Cazares, whose 10-year-old daughter Jacklyn was killed, told AP that police appeared unprepared.
“More could have been done,” he said.
He said he and other residents gathered outside the school started to plan their own rescue mission as the gunman remained locked inside.
“Let’s just rush in because the cops aren’t doing anything like they are supposed to,” he said.
A video recorded by residents and posted on social media captured in real time the anger of parents at the spectacle of armed police standing outside the school and not going in. “They are all fucking parking outside, man – they need to go in there, they are all in there. The cops aren’t doing shit but standing outside,” shouted one father.
A distressed mother yelled: “I’m going to go. All these kids are in the school and they are just standing there. Our kids are there, my son is right there.”
As tension mounted, a police officer is filmed trying to push parents back from the side of the school. “You know that there are kids, right? There are little kids. They don’t know how to defend themselves from the shooter,” the father said.
One mother who spoke to the Wall Street Journal said officers put her in handcuffs for “interfering in an active investigation” when she urged them to enter the school. “The police were doing nothing,” Angeli Rose Gomez told the Journal. Authorities have disputed her account.
Jose Cazares, whose niece Jackie died in the shooting, said her family wanted answers about how police responded that day: “It took them 45 minutes to do what? Nothing.”
His brother, Jackie’s father, came to the school on Tuesday afternoon as the shooting unfolded and begged officers to go in. “My brother said ‘let me go in there … my baby is in there. I’m not going anywhere until I see my baby.”
Cazares added: “I heard the governor say that he allocated half a billion dollars for school safety. Why wasn’t that school safe?”
“They need to be held accountable, the school, the PD, the governor.”
It is not clear whether more prompt police action to break into the classroom and take out the shooter could have saved any of the 21 lives lost. Escalon told the press conference that most of the killing appeared to have occurred early on.
“The majority of the gunfire was in the beginning. Numerous, I’d say more than 25,” he said.
Further agonising details of the shooting emerged on Thursday. A 10-year-old boy in the next classroom described how he crouched with a friend under a desk. The boy said at one point the shooter entered his classroom and threatened him.
The aunt of an 11-year-old who survived the shooting said her niece used the blood of fellow students to play dead when the gunman entered her classroom.
“[She] got some blood and put it on herself so she could pretend she was dead,” Blanca Rivera told NBC 5 Dallas Fort Worth.
And in another tragic development, the husband of Irma Garcia, one of the teachers who was shot and killed while sheltering children, died of a heart attack on Thursday.
The Garcias had been together for more than 30 years and were high school sweethearts before marrying and having four children, according to Debra Austin, a cousin of his wife.
“I truly believe Joe died of a broken heart and losing the love of his life … was too much to bear,” Austin wrote on a GoFundMe page.
Uvalde was the 213th mass shooting in the US this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, an independent database. It defines a mass shooting as an incident in which four or more people are injured or killed.
Robb elementary was the 27th US school to have experienced a shooting this year, Education Week reported.
The horror of so many children dying in a classroom has prompted renewed soul-searching at all levels of American public life. Joe Biden attempted on Wednesday to counter resistance from Republicans in Congress to basic gun regulations by saying that “the second amendment is not absolute”.
Chris Murphy, the Democratic senator from Connecticut, which saw the devastating Sandy Hook school shooting almost a decade ago in which 20 young children were killed, is leading attempts to enlist Republican support for gun control reform. He is known to have spoken with two Republican senators – Susan Collins from Maine and Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania.
The talks are focusing on FBI background checks for all firearms sales and a so-called “red flag law” to confiscate guns from individuals who might harm themselves or others.
At a rally in Washington held by Everytown for Gun Safety on Thursday, Murphy said he was engaged in bipartisan conversations to try to make the streets and schools safer. “I hope we will find that common ground, we are going to work our tails off to achieve that compromise,” he said.
The gun debate has been most intense in Texas as the state deals with yet another mass shooting. Some of the deadliest events in recent times have taken place in Texas, including the 2017 attack on a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs that killed 25 and the 2019 rampage in a Walmart in El Paso that left 23 dead.
The Republican-controlled state legislature continues to loosen already minimal gun regulations, in the name of what political leaders call second amendment “freedoms”. A year ago the Republican governor, Greg Abbott, signed a new provision that allows Texans to carry handguns in public without a license or training.
Abbott was confronted on Wednesday as he held a press conference over the Uvalde shooting by Beto O’Rourke, the Democrat running against him in November.
“This is on you until you choose to do something different,” O’Rourke interjected from the audience. “This will continue to happen, somebody needs to stand up for the children of this state or they will continue to be killed.”
O’Rourke was escorted out of the room as the Republican mayor of Uvalde, Don McLaughlin, called him a “sick son of a bitch”.
Ted Cruz, the Republican senator for Texas, was confronted by some hard facts by Sky News and ended up walking away from the camera complaining about “propaganda”. Asked for his response to the massacre, Cruz played an emotive card, saying in a shaking voice: “There are 19 sets of parents who are never going to get to kiss their child goodnight again.”
Pressed by the Sky News reporter on why the epidemic of mass shootings happens only in America, Cruz walked away from the interview, saying: “Stop being a propagandist.”
The ratio of firearms to population in the US far outstrips any other country in the world and is more than double the rate of the second country, Yemen, which is undergoing a brutal civil war. The US also has a dramatically higher rate of gun deaths than any other high-income country.
Further heated confrontations are expected on Friday when the National Rifle Association, the lobby group that has been the most vociferous opponent of gun safety laws, holds its annual meeting in Houston. Abbott will be among the speakers. So will Donald Trump. Attendees at Trump’s speech, however, will be banned from carrying guns.
Sam Levin and Ramon Antonio Vargas contributed reporting