UVALDE, United States – Aida Hernandez shed bitter tears as she left mass at the Sacred Heart church in the Texas town of Uvalde, a simple gray building where dozens gathered Wednesday to mourn the 21 lives lost in a horrific school shooting.
In the small church off main street, the largely Hispanic congregation sought to process the “horror” of what happened, and pray for the victims of America’s worst school shooting in a decade.
“My experience was of horror and pain. I knew the victims. I’m still in shock,” said Hernandez, in her sixties, who taught at Robb Elementary School until she retired two years ago.
The town of just 15,000 inhabitants, located 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the border with Mexico, was until 24 hours ago like every other small US town: a grid of streets dotted with shopping malls, gas stations and fast food chains.
But on Tuesday everything changed, when an 18-year-old named Salvador Ramos sowed carnage at Robb Elementary School.
Armed with an assault rifle, he made his way to two adjoining classrooms and opened fire, killing two teachers and 19 of their young students — until he was shot dead by police.
The massacre shook the quiet town to its core and plunged residents into both incomprehension and despair.
“When you teach and you’re in the classroom, that’s your job to protect them,” Hernandez said of the teachers who died.
“They did more beyond what they were supposed to do.”
– ‘Too many times’ –
A few feet away, Rosie Buantel was equally grief-stricken — but she was outraged, too.
“I’m sad and I’m angry at our government, for not doing more about gun control,” the woman in her fifties told AFP.
“We’ve gone through this one too many times. And still there’s nothing done. They’re still debating.”
Eddie, a local resident in his sixties who declined to give his last name, was also feeling angry.
“I came to show my respects and also to put pressure for a change of laws so guns don’t get in the hands of children,” he said after laying flowers near the elementary school, which was still surrounded by police.
Throughout the day, people in Uvalde made their way to a municipal center, where they could receive psychological support.
On the day of the shooting, many relatives and friends of the victims faced hours of anguished waiting to find out what happened to their loved ones.
In front of the municipal center, in the blazing midday Texas heat, groups of adults and children chatted, coming and going under the watchful gaze of police officers.
Volunteer psychologist Iveth Pacheco traveled from San Antonio, to the east of Uvalde, to provide support to those in need.
“It’s just one of those situations where you just have to be present,” she said. “We have to be ready for the child whatever questions they have, and it’s the same thing with the adults right now.”