UVALDE, Texas – The first shots came from the hallway outside the classroom. Arnulfo Reyes, a fourth-grade teacher at Robb Elementary School, was quick to recall the active shooting practice he had rehearsed so many times and told his 11 students to lie under their desks and “pretend to sleep.”
A black shadow appeared at one of the classroom doors and a plume of fire erupted from the tip of what looked like a rifle. Mr. Reyes felt a bullet pierce his arm, tearing off a chunk of flesh and bone. Then the shooter turned on the children. The frenzy was so brutal and so quick, the teacher said, that he didn’t hear a single wail from them as their bodies were torn to shreds.
Mr. Reyes lay in a pool of his own blood for what seemed an eternity until he heard police officers gathering in the hallway just outside the classroom door. His students lay silent, dead or dying; a few other children in an adjacent classroom were still alive, crying feebly for help. The agents can come in at any moment and rescue us, he told himself. But the minutes ticked by and no rescue came.
About half an hour later, the gunman, who was sitting near where Mr. Reyes was sprawled on the floor, appeared to be harassing him. He aimed his pistol at the teacher’s back and fired again.
“I’m thinking about it more and more. What could they have done differently?” Mr Reyes said in an interview about the events of May 24, when a mass shooting at the school killed 19 students and two teachers.
He described the pain the victims felt when police gathered in the hallway delayed entering the classrooms where the gunman had holed up — waiting about 78 minutes in a delayed response that was complicated by a search, according to a preliminary law enforcement investigation. to a key and a decision to try to protect the lives of the responding agents.
“I kept waiting for someone to come,” Mr. Reyes said. “But when I saw nobody come in, I thought: nobody comes.”
More than a month after the tragedy, as Mr. Reyes tries to recover from the serious wounds he sustained, the memories of that day repeatedly run through his mind. The day started with a friendly awards ceremony at the end of the year, after which nearly half of Mr. Reyes’ 18 fourth-grade students had gone home with their parents. Eleven stayed because they wanted to watch the movie “The Addams Family”.
“It was going to be an easy day just before the summer holidays,” he recalls.
Out of nowhere, Mr. Reyes and his students overheard what they now know are shots coming from the hallway. The powerful blast spewed debris into his classroom. “There were pieces of wall flying,” he said.
The gunman first entered room 112, which was connected to Mr. Reyes’ classroom through another door. He fired randomly, police said, fatally wounding two teachers, Irma Garcia and Eva Mireles, and several of their students.
Mr. Reyes turned to his students. “Okay, we’ve already practiced this. Get under the desks, okay? Just close your eyes and pretend you’re asleep,” he recalls.
“I didn’t want them to see anything.”
Mr. Reyes does not recall whether the shooter entered through the door connecting the two rooms or whether he stepped back into the hallway. But the next thing he remembers is seeing a ghostly figure wearing a black hoodie over his head and what appeared to be a black medical mask covering half of his face.
“I only see this shadow and his eyes,” he said.
Then two sparks came from a gun, aimed at him. “He shot me first,” he said. The impact sent a burning jolt through his left arm that felt like hot lava, he said. A large part of his forearm was missing.
The gunman quickly aimed his rifle at the students and unleashed a hail of fire so swift and relentless that it was almost over once it started and there was nothing but silence in the room. “They probably died instantly,” Mr. Reyes said, though he said some of them may have died in the long wait. Perhaps, he said, they were silent because “they were in shock.”
According to a preliminary timeline, the first police officers arrived at the door of the classroom about three minutes after the gunman entered the school. After the first attack, Mr. Reyes said, he could hear them talking in the hallway just outside.
At one point, he heard one of the officers yelling at the gunman, “Come out, we want to talk to you!” The gunman did not answer, although police said two officers suffered abrasions when he fired at the classroom door. The chatter of the police died down. “You haven’t heard back,” Mr. Reyes said.
Most of his students were probably beyond saving, Mr. Reyes said. But at least one surviving child in the next class must also have heard the officers, he said, because he heard someone calling for help.
“Officers, come in,” he heard a small voice say. “We’re in here.”
The gunman paced the room for minutes, then sat down on the teacher’s desk while Mr. Reyes lay sprawled on the floor. In what he believed to be an attempt to taunt him—or to make sure he was dead—the gunman dripped a cup of water from a desk onto Mr. Reyes’s back. The gunman then smeared some of Mr. Reyes’ own blood on the teacher’s face and placed the teacher’s phone, which continued to ring as desperate relatives tried to reach him, on his back.
He seemed to provoke a reaction, Mr. Reyes said. “He would make sure I was dead too. I mean, he had nothing to lose.”
About 30 minutes after entering the room, apparently unsure whether Mr. Reyes might still be alive, the gunman shot him a second time, this time in the lower back. Mr Reyes said he was sure at the time that he would not survive. “I’m not going to make it,” he told himself. “I’m going to bleed to death.”
Then he heard the gunman return to room 112. More shots were fired. He later heard the gunman close the blinds on a window outside.
Mr. Reyes can’t remember how much time has passed, but he suddenly heard tables shifting and loud banging in the next room. More shots were fired. Then silence.
A man who was part of a border patrol team that broke into the adjacent classroom and killed the gunman approached Mr. Reyes and urged him to “stand up if you can.” When he couldn’t, the officer dragged him out of the carnage by the tip of his pants. “He asked for help carrying me. I was overweight,’ he said with a rare smile.
Another officer, he said, suddenly shouted an expletive. “There are children here!”
A few of them still lived in the adjacent classroom. The school was suddenly a swarm of police officers, medics, ambulances and beyond hysterical parents. Mr. Reyes was flown to a hospital in San Antonio, where he underwent several surgeries.
Doctors placed a metal plate about 6 inches (15 cm) long on his arm in front of his gaping wound and covered it with a skin graft from his right leg. A pair of drainage bags still trap fluid coming out of his lower back and arm. He will no longer be able to move fully in the arm, doctors have told him.
He is now back in his modest home in Uvalde, a town where he has lived since childhood. It is decorated with antiques and inspiring signs. “All you need is love,” reads one, and, “It takes a big heart to help mold little minds.”
He had dreamed of becoming a lawyer, he said, but found his calling as a teacher 18 years ago, the last 10 of which were at Robb Elementary.
After a difficult year of remote teaching due to the pandemic, Mr. Reyes was happy to see all of his students return to class in 2022. “This year was different, I could just feel it,” he said. “They had a close bond. They wanted to learn.”
When he thinks of the students who died in his classroom that day, most of them barely 10 years old, he remembers them not in death, but in life.
There was Rojelio Torres, who had suddenly become serious about learning multiplication and division. “He was very ambitious. He wanted to be good at everything.”
There was Jose Flores, who lived for lunch and recess and was a ‘corajudo’ meaning he got confused every time he didn’t understand a lesson or math problem. “He’d shut down and I’d tell him, ‘Don’t do that.’ And he did, he learned to control his frustration.” Josecito, as his family called him, was first named on the honor roll the day he was murdered.
And who could forget Jayce Luevanos? He was the popular class clown who reminded Mr. Reyes of the flamboyant movie character Ace Ventura, played by Jim Carrey. Jayce liked to wear a T-shirt with the image of an ice chest that read, “I’m a little cooler than you.”
One recent afternoon, Mr. Reyes sat next to a blue folkloric cross given to him by the mother of Tess Mata, one of the victims, and a block of granite inscribed with photographs of all the victims. A cousin, Belinda Aguilera, came by to check on him. “Thank God he’s doing better,” Mrs. Aguilera said, studying Mr. Reyes, who was sitting alone on a couch.
Ms Aguilera, who lives near the school, said she was one of those who panicked and called Mr Reyes’ phone after hearing several gunshots. “You fell on my head because I knew you were there,” she told him, fighting back tears.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I feel like my phone call did that to him.”
No, no, said Mr. Reyes, trying to reassure her at a time when practically everyone has lost all sense of security. This is not yours, he said.
She didn’t seem convinced. She talked about the long road ahead of him. Not just the wounds that heal, but everything else. “The pain never goes away,” she says.