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UVALDE — Stopped at a red light, a woman rolled down her car window.
“I love you,” she yelled.
“I love you too!” said Arnulfo Reyes, raising the arm that was wounded a year ago by a gunman who killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School. Reyes, who taught fourth graders at the school, was the only survivor in his classroom, in which the gunman killed 11 students.
With his other hand, Reyes kept holding a big orange flag, the color for gun violence awareness, that had the number 21 — the total number of people killed — in the middle. Reyes was among a crowd gathered Wednesday afternoon at a memorial site for a 77-minute vigil — the amount of time authorities waited outside the classroom before confronting the shooter. The commemoration was one of several in the city to mark a year after the worst school shooting in Texas.
Hours later as night fell across the city, Reyes and student survivors from an adjacent classroom were the first to light candles at a vigil to honor the victims. Soon flickering candles speckled into a congregation of hundreds — including parents of the children killed and other relatives — gathered at the Memorial Park Amphitheater for the ceremony.
Christela Mendoza, a cousin of two of the shooting victims, shared a poem written by Jill Haley for a release of butterflies.
"As you release this butterfly in honor of me, know that I'm with you and will always be," Mendoza read. "Hold a hand, say a prayer, close your eyes and see me there."
She continued: "Although you may feel a bit torn apart, please know that I am forever in your heart. Now fly away butterfly, as high as you can go, I'm right there with you, more than you know."
Slowly, those gathered opened envelopes to free butterflies that fluttered about as the last vigil of the day continued.
In the year since the massacre, law enforcement officials involved in the shooting’s response have faced few consequences, a criminal investigation has not been completed and families have continued mourning — some sharing their grief while advocating for stricter gun laws.
“For us, and I think it may be felt across the community, it is a somber day,” said Julian Moreno, the great-grandfather of 10-year-old Alexandria “Lexi” Rubio, one of the fourth grade students killed that day. “But at the same time, a day that brings to mind the impact of the lives of these children — our great-granddaughter, who left recorded in our hearts all these beautiful moments we shared with her.”
Earlier in the day, while the crowd holding the 77-minute vigil stood near an intersection, where cars and big rigs traversing one of the city’s main streets honked in solidarity, a mariachi band arrived to perform three songs a member said are traditionally played for occasions of mourning.
“I am just one of many of the mariachi musicians and the mariachi world that want to send out our music of healing to the community of Uvalde, and especially to the families that are still grieving and mourning and hurting,” said Anthony Medrano, a San Antonio-based musician who has performed with mariachi groups at the White House and the Hollywood Bowl. “It’s been a year, and we choose to be out here today to continue our support for them and to continue the memory of the children and lives that were taken away.”
The one-year mark arrived days before the end of this year’s legislative session, during which some relatives of the children and teachers killed have visited the Capitol almost weekly to urge lawmakers to pass legislation to help prevent more mass shootings.
First: A framed photo of Tess Mata, one of the 19 children killed at the Robb Elementary School shooting one year ago, sits below her memorial cross at the plaza in Uvalde. Above, a handwritten message reads "We'll fix this. Promise." Second: The memorial cross for Eva Mireles, one of the teachers killed at Robb Elementary, is adorned with photos and fresh flowers at the town plaza in Uvalde. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune
The session is set to end next week without the passage of a key provision many of those families have advocated for — raising the minimum age from 18 to 21 to purchase certain semi-automatic rifles, like the AR-15 the 18-year-old Uvalde gunman used in the shooting, which he had legally bought days after his birthday.
"I left clinic, we went to D.C. three times and did all that we had to do and still to feel like what you've done isn't enough or really nothing really moved the way it's supposed to, it kind of makes you angry," said Dr. Roy Guerrero, a city pediatrician who testified at a U.S. House hearing last June about treating a longtime patient, Miah Cerrillo, for a shrapnel injury at the hospital where he also encountered the bodies of two deceased children. "Even at the local level, I'm feeling this mentality of 'Well it didn't happen to me so it's not that big of a deal.' I'm not trying to put words in people's mouths but that's what it feels like."
In Washington, D.C., President Joe Biden said the nation must ban AR-15-style firearms and high-capacity magazines. He also called for establishing national red flag laws — which allow judges to temporarily seize firearms from people deemed dangerous — and requiring the safe storage of guns.
Across Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered flags be lowered to half-staff and urged Texans to observe a moment of silence at 11:30 a.m. in memory of the victims.
In Austin, Democratic Rep. Tracy King, who represents Uvalde and carried the raise-the-age bill, led House members in a moment of silence at 11:32 a.m., the time the shooter entered the school a year ago today.
“Eight days after his 18th birthday, a killer walked into Robb Elementary and fired around 150 rounds, shot 38 people, killed 19 fourth-graders and two teachers. It took him about three minutes,” King said to a silent House floor. “I would ask that we memorialize and honor [the victims] with a moment of silence.”
By quarter past 7 a.m., a man and a little boy arrived at the memorial where 21 crosses encircled a pond. In silence, the man removed a baseball cap from his head, and the two walked from one cross to another, briefly stopping at each before leaving. Across the memorial, a group of six adults and another child gathered in a circle and bowed their heads.
They were among the first in a procession of visitors to the memorial. In front of the flags, visitors left flowers, photos and colorful pinwheels.
Down the street, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church released butterflies from the church’s labyrinth during a ceremony that lasted about seven minutes — roughly a tenth of the time it took police to enter the classroom where the gunman terrorized children after killing their classmates.
School district officials canceled class Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday “out of respect, observance, and safety concerns.” School staff will return Friday.
Weeks before the one-year mark neared, some families planned to leave the area. Four survivors who were in one of the targeted classrooms hoped to go to Disneyland, according to a fundraiser set up to help their families. Others had quietly left for neighboring towns by Wednesday, like a family that went to Del Rio for the week.
Meanwhile, the district attorney for the county, Christina Mitchell, said in a statement the investigation into the shooting remained ongoing and that she had refrained from commenting publicly "in strict compliance with my legal and ethical obligations." The statement was first reported by a KXAN News reporter shortly after the evening vigil ended.
"My primary duty as the 38th Judicial District Attorney for Real and Uvalde counties is to see that justice is done in a fair and impartial manner to determine if actions in my jurisdiction rise to the level of a felony criminal offense," Mitchell said. "This review can only occur after all the facts and evidence regarding an event have been gathered properly and responsibly by law enforcement without bias, prejudice, or hasty conclusions."
Mitchell also said she had "expressed my preference" to school officials to delay the planned demolition of Robb Elementary until any presentations to a grand jury are completed.
"I ache for the families of the victims, the survivors, and my community," Mitchell said. "Although I am mindful of the criticism against me for declining public comment about the particulars of the ongoing investigation, I must remain steadfast in my responsibility to see that this investigation is conducted in such a manner as to withstand the inevitable scrutiny and critique which will be lodged upon its completion."
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