by Claire Gallofaro
UVALDE, Texas ( Associated Press) — Josie Albrecht drove from house to house, tracing the school bus route she drives twice a day, getting Uvalde’s kids to school safely.
When she picked them up, hours before, she wore giddy grins, excited for summer vacation just a few days away: soccer, softball, independence. He had planned a pizza party to celebrate that afternoon. But before she could pick them up and take them home, a gunman walked into their school and opened fire.
Now, a few days later, he was drawn to the town square and there were erected 21 white crosses, one for each of the 19 children and two teachers whose deaths left a huge hole in the marrow of a small town.
“It’s my job to take them home. I didn’t take my kids home,” cried Albrecht repeatedly.
In a town this small, 15,000 people, even those who didn’t lose their baby, lost someone—their best friend, the little boy down the street who dropped his basketball into the driveway. Kid standing on the curb, backpack in hand, waiting for the bus. Everywhere they see the empty spaces they leave behind. They will not sit on bus seats. He will not wear a baseball glove. The front door they won’t leave to engage in a neighborhood game of tag. Rivers in which they will not fish.
The rhythm of the city has always centered around their children. Their world shattered before shooting, “What’s your son doing?” Or “Your daughter played a great game” were the most common exchanges when meeting people they knew, which happens all the time because everyone knows everyone. If one of Albrecht’s riders misbehaved, she would remind them that she knew their parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles.
Some now say that closeness is both their blessing and a curse: they can depend on each other to grieve. But each one of them is sad.
Albrecht called his little riders “my children”, and in the chaotic hours after the stampede, she was desperate to know if they would be able to make it home safe. She used to go from house to house. She arrived where 10-year-old Rogelio Torres waited every morning at the crossroads with her younger brother and sister. As he climbed, he would always ask to sit at the back because that’s where the “visiting” happens and he likes to go. He was “like a bull”, she said – charismatic, funny. He loved Hot Tacky. But he was not at home. Her family stood in shock and was crying on the lawn. She knows.
A few days later, she brought a toy school bus to place on his cross at the memorial. “I love you and will miss you,” he wrote on it, and drew a broken heart over the spot where he used to sit, in the back.
She kept crying, agonizing that she could not save him, and a local doctor hugged her. “There was nothing you could do,” said John Preddy, a family businessman who fathered two of these dead children and cared for them all their short lives, their broken knees and runny nose.
His office is decorated with John Wayne memorabilia in an old western style just a few blocks away, because he wants the kids to have fun.
“You spend your life keeping them healthy and watching these kids grow,” he said. “What they did in a matter of seconds was their mother and their father and their grandparents and I and everyone trying to make their lives better and make them healthier and move them forward and make them successful in the world. Sniffed in a few seconds.”
He looked around the square, which used to be a sleepy park, surrounded by antique shops, the city theater, a hairdresser. And now it is the heart of their mourning: the mound of flowers and the gifts at the foot of the cross are 2 feet high – a true expression of unspeakable grief. A few days after the shooting, he added a 22nd cross for Joe Garcia, the husband of teacher Irma Garcia, who died trying to protect his students. Two days after the attack, he visited this memorial near her, brought her flowers, went home and died of a heart attack.
“It destroys lives,” said Predy, who has been a doctor here for 30 years. “This is our life, these kids are our life.”
They tried to do math: 19 kids, each with parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles.
“When you start connecting it and you spread it, those kids have thousands of connections: teachers, bus drivers, people who cut their hair. It’s all intertwined,” he said. They touch the lives of thousands, these kids, pretty much everyone in the city.”
Mourners left behind things these children had cherished and would never touch again: a flower made from pipe cleaners, a wreath of crayons, Hot Wheels, a princess crown, a baseball with “good game” written on it. , a bag of chocolate-covered pretzels.
Messages in Sharpie include white crosses.
“Mom loves you.”
“I’ll eat a smor just for you.”
“I’ll take care of your grandmother.”
As the people reached the square, they hugged and begged: “Why? Why? Why? Why?”
They need answers, Preddy said.
Police have changed their account of their response several times, finally admitting days after the shooting that officers gathered in the school hallway had been waiting for more than an hour to enter the classrooms where the gunman hid. It happened because the kids inside had called 911 and whispered to save them.
Political questions are swirling in town as well: How can a troubled young man walk out of a gun store for the war days after his 18th birthday, Predy and several others asked.
Predy, a gun-wielding conservative, also wondered: How could this country do nothing for a decade after 20 students and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut?
“Our kids can’t live like this, they can’t. We cannot let our children, my grandchildren live like this for the rest of their lives and the lives of their children,” he said. “We just can’t have that.”
People are scared. The places where these children used to play are closed or quiet. A sign on the door of a candy shop said the community needed time to recover. The swings were lying empty in the city park. No kids played in a wooden climbing castle where they carve out their names and their crushes. Those who died will never come again.
“It feels empty, there’s an emptiness in it,” said 76-year-old grandmother Lidia Carrasco, who loves to come to the park to eat breakfast and watch the kids run around. “It just feels lonely, that you don’t see the kids.”
Down her street, her neighbor’s boy was killed, and she loved listening to him play basketball in the driveway. She feels helpless, because she knows so many people who have lost children, and doesn’t know what to say to comfort them. She lost her only son earlier this month; He was 57 years old. It’s an injury that’s hard to explain: It feels unnatural, she said, to bury a child. They’re going to overtake you, your legacy, and then that’s over, all of a sudden.
She loves watching children play because it reminds her of when her own children were small and free and innocent. But it seems that all his town has been robbed of that innocence.
Raquel Martinez and her four children stayed at home for several days, holding each other. They are scared, she said. Her two daughters, aged 15 and 11, stood weeping at a memorial. They were both tutored by two teachers who died, Irma García and Eva Miracles. They were kind, the girls said, always smiling, always helpful. His 8-year-old cousin was in school at the time, but he outlived her.
“Heartbreaking,” Martinez said, doesn’t seem like a big enough word for it. “Heartbreaker,” he offered instead.
The family first left the house a few days after the shoot to go to the grocery, then fell flowers for their fallen teachers and children. Martinez kept her kids close by.
“I don’t feel safe anywhere,” she said. “You would never have thought that this could happen here. How can you know where and when it is going to happen next?”
He had big plans for the summer, soccer, softball, playing outside with his friends. But now they have no idea about this.
“That’s the worst part about it,” Martinez said. “They were almost out of school, just days away, they were just getting ready to be kids, be free.”
Across town, 8-year-old Jeremiah Lennon sits quietly on his couch most of the time, staring at space. Before all this, he was a spirited child, said his grandmother, Brenda Morales. He would come home from school, eat food, go out to play tag or hide and seek with the neighborhood children.
“He’s different now,” Morales said. He doesn’t eat much. He doesn’t even talk much. “He has changed. Everything has changed.”
The third grader was in class 112, which was right next to the room where the shooter was hiding.
He said the 15 kids in his class were sitting on the ground in the corner, as quiet as they could be, he said. The miscreants tried to go inside but the door was locked from inside. Jeremiah said he was mad at first, because he didn’t have a break. He was also scared: “I was afraid I would be shot, my friends would be shot.”
He later told his mother that some of his classmates were crying, and he wanted to be brave and strong for them, so he didn’t let himself cry.
Word started spreading outside the school walls.
Their mother, Ashley Morales, arrived at the civic center where the parents were told they would be reunited with their children. She waited there for two hours; It seemed like an eternity. Then Jeremiah emerged, the last child. He hugged her and cried. “My kids, my kids, what if I didn’t have kids?”
His family has been living here for generations. They are somehow connected with almost everyone in the city, so when the names of the children who died began to appear, they were stunned.
Three of Jeremiah’s friends died, including a boy who lived in the courtyard of his apartment complex – the boys played together almost every day. Two of his cousins lost daughters, and a neighbor also lost a daughter. Ashley’s coworkers lost their relatives at a fast-food restaurant; She asks them how they are doing and they try to put on a brave face and say they are fine, but she knows they are not.
His mother, Brenda Morales, said he struggled with guilt: Jeremiah made it out alive and many others did not.
“I don’t know why he decided to kill my friends,” said the boy, bouncing nervously on the trampoline. They do not know what to say, except that his friends are now with God in heaven.
They don’t even know what to say when he tells them he doesn’t want to go back to school in the fall.
“They’ll kill me,” he says.
He wants to be a police officer when he grows up, “so that I can arrest the bad guys who have guns.” He wants his friends to feel safe again.
Every time they leave their apartment, he glances at the door in the courtyard where his best friend lived.
He reminds his mother: “My friend is no more.”
Associated Press photographer Mai-E Wong and national writer Alan Breed contributed to this report.