UVALDE, Texas ( Associated Press) — Josie Albrecht frantically drove from house to house, repeating the school route she takes twice a day to get the children of Uvalde safely to and from school.
When I picked them up hours later, they were beaming, excited about the upcoming summer vacation: soccer, softball, freedom. She had planned a pizza party to celebrate that afternoon. But before she could pick them up and take them home, a gunman entered the school and started shooting.
A few days later, Albrecht went to the town square and walked towards the 21 white crosses placed by the 19 children and two teachers, whose deaths left great holes in the heart of a small town.
“My job is to take them home. I didn’t take my little ones home,” Albrecht cried over and over again.
In such a small town, with 15,000 people, even those who did not lose a child lost someone: their best friend, the child who lived down the street and bounced the ball in front of the house, the boy who waited for the bus on the sidewalk, backpack in hand They see everywhere the empty spaces they have left. Free seats on the bus. The baseball glove that no one wears. Doors they won’t knock on to play. Rivers they will not fish in.
The rhythm of the town has always revolved around children. Before the shooting shattered his world, “how’s your son doing?” or “your daughter played a great game” were the most common comments when running into someone you know, which happens all the time because everyone knows each other. If one of Albrecht’s passengers misbehaved, he would remind them that he knew his parents, grandparents, and uncles.
Now, some say their closeness is a blessing and a curse at the same time. They can support each other in grief. But now they all cry for someone.
Albrecht calls his little passengers “my children”, and in the chaotic hours after the attack he desperately tried to find out if they had made it home safely. He drove from one house to another. He arrived at the house where Rojelio Torres, 10 years old, waited every morning on the sidewalk with his little brother and his sister. He always asked to sit in the back because “visits” were made there and he liked to visit. He was a charismatic, funny kid, he said. He loved the spicy Takis. But he was not at home. His family was standing in the garden, shocked and crying. Albrecht knew what had happened.
A few days later, he brought a toy school bus to the cross placed in his memory. “I love you and will miss you,” she wrote on top, drawing a broken heart where she used to sit in the back.
The driver was crying, anguished because she had not been able to save him, and a local doctor hugged her. “There was nothing you could do,” said John Preddy, a family doctor, who delivered two of the deceased children and cared for all of them during his short life, their knees scratched and their noses snotty.
“You spend your life trying to keep them alive and you watch these kids grow up,” he said. “In a second, he took away what his mothers and fathers and his grandparents and I have all done to make them have good lives and be healthy and get them ahead and make them successful in the world. That literally disappeared in a matter of seconds.”
He looked around the square, which is normally a quiet park surrounded by old shops, the cinema, a barber shop. Now is the core of the duel. Flowers and gifts are piled before the crosses and reach more than half a meter (two feet) in height.
“This destroys lives,” said Preddy, a town doctor for 30 years. “It’s our life, these children are our lives.”
He tried to do the math: 19 kids, each with parents, grandparents, siblings, uncles.
“When you start adding it up and expanding it, those kids have thousands of connections: teachers, bus drivers, the people who cut their hair. All of that is interconnected,” she said. “So they touch the lives of thousands of people, these kids, pretty much everyone in town.”
People left things kids treasured in life and will never touch again: a flower made out of pipe cleaners, a crown made out of crayons, Hot Wheels, a princess crown, a baseball someone wrote “nice game” on, a bag of chocolate covered pretzels.
The white crosses were covered with marker-written messages.
“Mom loves you.”
“I’ll eat a marshmallow just for you.”
“I’ll take care of your grandmother.”
People were arriving at the square and they hugged each other while asking “Why? Why? Why? Why?”.
They needed answers, Preddy said. The police have changed their version of his management many times, finally admitting days after the attack that the officers gathered in the school corridor waited more than an hour before storming the rooms where the shooter was barricading himself, while the children who were inside they called 911 over and over again, pleading in whispers to be saved.”
The political questions also resonate throughout the town: How did a troubled young man walk out of a gun store with a gun designed for war, days after his 18th birthday, Preddy and many others asked.
Preddy, a conservative who owns guns, also wondered how the country could have done nothing for a decade since 20 students and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
“Our boys can’t live like this, they can’t. We cannot let my children, my grandchildren, live like this for the rest of their lives and the lives of their children,” he said. “We just can’t.”