UVALDE, Texas (AP) — One student was an avid runner, so fast she swept the races at field day. Another was learning football plays from his grandfather. One girl sensed something was wrong and wanted to skip school.
On Wednesday, stories began to emerge about the lives of the 19 children — “precious individuals” according to the school district superintendent — and their two teachers who were gunned down behind a barricaded door at Robb Elementary School in the southwestern Texas town of Uvalde.
Vincent Salazar said his 10-year-old daughter, Layla, loved to swim and dance to Tik Tok videos. She was fast — she won six races at the school’s field day, and Salazar proudly posted a photo of Layla showing off two of her ribbons on Facebook.
Each morning as he drove her to school in his pickup, Salazar would play “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” by Guns N’ Roses and they’d sing along, he said.
“She was just a whole lot of fun,” he said.
Manny Renfro lost his 8-year-old grandson, Uziyah Garcia, in the shooting.
“The sweetest little boy that I’ve ever known,” Renfro said. “I’m not just saying that because he was my grandkid.”
Renfro said Uziyah last visited him in San Angelo during spring break. “We started throwing the football together and I was teaching him pass patterns. Such a fast little boy and he could catch a ball so good,” Renfro said. “There were certain plays that I would call that he would remember and he would do it exactly like we practiced.”
Javier Cazares said he found out Tuesday afternoon that his 9-year-old daughter Jacklyn Cazares was killed in her classroom. She was with a group of five girls, including her second cousin, Annabelle Rodriguez, who formed a tight group of friends.
“They are all gone now,” Cazares said.
The extended families of the slain cousins gathered Wednesday to mourn and comfort each other over barbecue.
Cazares described his daughter as a “firecracker” who “had a voice, she didn’t like bullies, she didn’t like kids being picked on.”
“All in all, full of love. She had a big heart,” he said.
Veronica Luevanos, whose 10-year-old daughter, Jailah Nicole Silguero, was among the victims, tearfully told Univision that her daughter did not want to go to school Tuesday and seemed to sense something bad was going to happen. Jailah’s cousin also died in the shooting.
All of the dead were in the same fourth-grade classroom, where the shooter barricaded himself Tuesday and opened fire on the children and their teachers, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told a news conference Wednesday. He said the gunman used an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle in the attack and posted on Facebook shortly before the shooting: “I’m going to shoot an elementary school.”
Schools Superintendent Hal Harrell fought back tears as he spoke of the children and their teachers.
“You can just tell by their angelic smiles that they were loved,” Harrell said of the children. “That they loved coming to school, that they were just precious individuals.”
The two teachers “poured their heart and soul” into their work, Harrell said.
Teacher Eva Mireles, 44, was remembered as a loving mother and wife. “She was adventurous. … She is definitely going to be very missed,” said 34-year-old relative Amber Ybarra, of San Antonio.
In a post on the school’s website at the start of the school year, Mireles introduced herself to her new students.
“Welcome to the 4th grade! We have a wonderful year ahead of us!” she wrote, noting she had been teaching 17 years, loved running and hiking, and had a “supportive, fun, and loving family.” She mentioned that her husband was a school district police officer, and they had a grown daughter and three “furry friends.”
The other slain teacher, Irma Garcia, wrote about her four children, including one who was in the Marines, in a letter introducing herself to the class. Garcia’s 21-year-old nephew, John Martinez, told the Detroit Free Press the family was struggling to grasp that while Garcia’s son trained for combat, it was his mother who was shot to death.
Angel Garza, a medical assistant with a step daughter at the school, arrived soon after the shooting and found himself aiding students streaming out injured and shaken up.
One girl was covered in blood and he asked if she had been shot.
“I’m not hurt. He shot my best friend,” the girl said. “She’s not breathing. She was just trying to call the cops.”
And then she named the friend, Amerie Jo Garza, his stepdaughter.
Amerie was happy child who had just gotten her first cell phone for turning 10 and had just gotten a certificate the morning of the shooting for making the honor roll. She also loved to paint and draw and work in clay.
Garza said that in his grief he wonders what happened in those brief moments before Amerie was killed, if she said anything to the shooter, if he had seen her reach for her phone. And then he remembered the moment she got the phone for her birthday, and her face.
“It just lit up with the happiest expression,” said Garza. “She was so sweet.”
Relatives of 10-year-old Eliahna Garcia recalled her love of family.
“She was very happy and very outgoing,” said Eliahna’s aunt, Siria Arizmendi, a fifth-grade teacher at Flores Elementary School in the same district. “She loved to dance and play sports. She was big into family, enjoyed being with the family.”
Lisa Garza, 54, of Arlington, Texas, mourned the death of her 10-year-old cousin, Xavier Javier Lopez, who had been eagerly awaiting a summer of swimming.
“He was just a loving … little boy, just enjoying life, not knowing that this tragedy was going to happen,” she said. “He was very bubbly, loved to dance with his brothers, his mom. This has just taken a toll on all of us.”
She lamented what she described as lax gun laws.
“We should have more restrictions, especially if these kids are not in their right state of mind and all they want to do is just hurt people, especially innocent children going to the schools,” Garza said.
Arizmendi also spoke angrily, through tears, about how the shooter managed to get a gun.
“It’s just difficult to understand or to put into words,” she said. “I just don’t know how people can sell that type of a gun to a kid 18 years old. What is he going to use it for but for that purpose?”
As Ybarra prepared to give blood for the wounded, she wondered how no one noticed trouble with the shooter in time to stop him.
“To me, it’s more about raising mental health awareness,” said Ybarra, a wellness coach who attended Robb Elementary herself. “Someone could possibly have seen a dramatic change before something like this happened.”
Even for the survivors, there was grief.
Lorena Auguste was substitute teaching at Uvalde High School when she heard about the shooting. She began frantically texting her niece, a fourth-grader at Robb Elementary, until Auguste heard from her sister that the child was OK.
Auguste said her niece asked her that night, “Tia, why did they do this to us? We’re good kids, we didn’t do anything wrong.”
Hillcrest Memorial Funeral Home, which is located across the street from Robb Elementary School, said in a Facebook post that it would be assisting families of the shooting victims with no cost for funerals. GoFundMe pages were set up for many of the victims, including one on behalf of all victims that has raised more than $1.5 million.
Associated Press writers Jim Vertuno in Uvalde, Texas; Heather Hollingsworth in Mission, Kansas; Jamie Stengle in Dallas; Don Babwin in Chicago; Stephen Groves in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Roxana Hegeman in Wichita, Kansas; John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas; Jill Zeman Bleed in Little Rock, Arkansas; Bernard Condon in New York; and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed.