A girl left Robb Elementary early. Another was trapped inside the school. A desperate search for a mother and a family’s struggle to move on.
One of the winners was Roque’s 10-year-old daughter Kat, who smiled from a stage adorned with pink balloons as she held up her certificate of honor alongside her fourth-grade classmates. Afterwards, Kat begged her mother to pull her out of school early, and Roque reluctantly agreed, believing the girl could help her buy a shoe rack.
And that’s how Kat was at Walmart to see the scary expression on her mom’s face when she said they had to go, abandoning their shopping cart in the middle of the aisle to run for the silver Chevrolet pickup. family in the parking lot.
Roque told her something was up at school, but she didn’t know what, and Kat didn’t ask questions when her mom turned on her hazard lights and started blowing a red light after the crash. another on Main Street.
And nothing needed to be said, because Kat knew her sister – another of Roque’s daughters, Ariely, 9 – was still inside Robb Elementary, and whom Roque had chosen, earlier in the day. day, to leave it behind.
This decision, when Roque made it, couldn’t seem less important.
The festive atmosphere of leaving school for the summer was already on Uvalde. On Monday, a group of seniors from Uvalde High School – including Roque’s eldest daughter, Johnbenay Garcia – walked through the school in crimson caps and dresses to welcome the children, as part of an annual ritual that preceded the high school graduation ceremony.
On Tuesday morning, elementary students gathered for their awards ceremony. Kat was rewarded for her A’s and B’s, as well as an award for her ‘pawed’ computer skills, complete with a giant paw print. Ariely, a year below her sister, received an award for outstanding citizenship.
In a photo taken at 10.51am, less than an hour before gunfire began to ring out in the school, Kat can be seen standing in a row of children holding their certificates in front of a stage. On either side of her are several of her classmates – including Jose Flores, Xavier Lopez, Alexandria Rubio, Layla Salazar, Annabell Rodriguez and Uziyah Garcia – as well as their teacher, Arnulfo Reyes. Not pictured is Eliahana Torres, the best friend Kat was usually inseparable from.
As the ceremony ended, Roque said goodbye to her daughters.
“Can I come with you?” Kat asked.
Roque reminded him that the school was not closed until 3 p.m.
“Stay,” she said firmly.
But Kat said all her class would do this afternoon was watch a movie. She would be bored, she told her mother. It occurred to Roque that Kat could help him run errands for the two-bedroom house they had just moved into on the outskirts of Uvalde.
“Where are you going Kat?” her teacher asked seeing her leave.
Roque explained to Reyes that she was going to sign her daughter for the afternoon. Then she went to the reception.
“Just this one?” confirms the receptionist.
“The other one doesn’t really want to leave,” joked Roque.
A little over an hour later, Roque’s truck stopped in front of his parents’ house across from the school. She looked at her phone again.
“They said there was a shooting on Robb,” his eldest daughter, Johnbenay, had texted.
“Ariely is in there,” Roque replied, with a teary face emoji.
The police were everywhere. Roque drove Kat to a house at the back of her parents’ property and told her to lock the door and stay there no matter what.
Soon, Kat started texting her older sister.
“Benay it’s me kat it’s scary cuz I hear 1000s and 000s of gunshots all the time,” she wrote.
“It’s okay baby, just stay close to mom,” Johnbenay replied.
Shortly after, Johnbenay texted again.
Roque had spent most of his life in Uvalde. His father, Jorge Roque, immigrated to the United States when he was 12 from Palaú, about 150 miles across the Mexican border.
She loved many things about her hometown: the quiet, seemingly unchanging pace of life, the open fields where her daughters could ride the family’s four horses. But above all, she loved Uvalde’s intense community spirit.
The town’s population had grown to around 15,000, but people still said everyone knew each other, and to Roque, that seemed true. She certainly couldn’t go long without meeting a neighbor, friend, aunt or cousin. They were at the grocery store, and at the snow cone place, and at Ofelia, the restaurant owned by her mother and where Roque worked as a waitress.
Yet the crowd she joined outside the police perimeter in Robb on Tuesday was unlike any she had seen before in Uvalde. People were crying, angry and bewildered. Some were yelling at the police.
“It was chaos,” she later recalled.
Roque stood with many relatives on one side of the school, near the Hillcrest Memorial Funeral Home. His father was waiting with others at the back of campus, near his house. Time passed, though she couldn’t tell how much. The crowd got angrier, and so did she.
Then she felt her phone vibrate again.
It was his sister who, not so long ago, had told him the news of the shooting. Now she had more news.
The girl had emerged from the back of the school and found herself in the desperate embrace of Jorge, her grandfather. Roque joined them outside the house on Old Carrizo Road, where she too kissed her daughter.
Ariely had hidden behind the curtain of the stage where she and her sister had received their awards that morning, praying quietly until they were led out of the building. She never met the shooter.
Roque thanked God as she held her daughter again and again. But she soon realized that there were limits to what she could celebrate.
Kat was still curled up in the house next door. None of his fifth grade classmates were visible anywhere.
Roque looked at the other parents, many of whom were his friends, trying to catch a glimpse of their own children. We approached Roque with a question.
“Have you seen my daughter?
As bullets ricocheted around him, a Uvalde student found safety in silence
Late Friday afternoon, Roque was again leaving Walmart on the northeast outskirts of town, this time with her 11-month-old baby, Rodolfo, along with Kat and Ariely. Her shopping list was very different from the one she had three days earlier.
In the cart were bouquets, which the store was now distributing, and Sharpie markers.
“How are you?” The cashier asked Roque.
“So far, good,” Roque replied calmly.
“Very good,” she then said to the cashier. “See you later, Dora.”
The family rode in the silver Chevy Retrieve. They were in no rush, as Roque had been on Tuesday, and the truth was they were in no rush to reach their next milestone. Roque drove at a steady pace down Main Street, without running red lights.
They passed a Texas state flag at half mast and a subway sign that now read “Uvalde Strong.” They passed the impromptu memorials that appeared in a new place each day at sunrise. Class photographs. Flower crowns. Rows of empty chairs.
There were so many dead children. Why had hers been spared? Roque couldn’t stop thinking about it, even though his thoughts seemed to lead nowhere.
“It keeps spinning in my head: What if I left her there? I would have felt this guilt for the rest of my life,” she said.
Roque’s mother, the matron of the Ofelia restaurant, told her that the voice of God had guided her to get Kat out of school on Tuesday morning, that there were angels watching over them. But why hadn’t these angels watched over so many others? Roque felt as if she had glimpsed a truth that many people had gone their whole lives without seeing, something to do with chance or fate, but she didn’t know what it was.
” Honestly, I do not know. I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t stop thinking about it,” she said. “I could have left her”
And now their destination was in sight: the town square of Uvalde, with its worn stone fountain surrounded by 21 white crosses.
It was just after 5 p.m., that time of day in South Texas when the sun is an increment too bright for the human eye. Roque parked on a side street and got out of the truck with her children in the 96-degree heat.
The square was not as crowded as it would be in the hours to come, when the votive candles were lit and the television crews began their evening shows. But there were still a few photographers and film crews wandering around the site.
Kat stopped abruptly and turned her back to the memorial.
“Guys, they’re going to take my picture,” she said.
Roque told her she would be fine. Kat had said on the way that she was afraid to cry, and her mother had told her there was nothing wrong with that. But his face, like Ariely’s, betrayed almost no emotion as they approached the crosses bearing the names of their deceased classmates.
In the square, they met Roque’s sister, Ruiz, and his niece, Aleah. The girls uncapped the markers they had just bought while Roque held the bouquets.
“Aleah,” Kat told her cousin, “we all have to sign them.”
Ariely followed her older sister and Roque followed them all, looking at her daughters through large dark sunglasses.
Messages had been scrawled across most of the available space on the crosses, assuring the dead children that they were loved and missed, and of heaven, where the people of Uvalde would see them again. Girls had to reach through waist-deep mounds of flowers and stuffed animals to find nooks where they could write.
As she circled the fountain, Kat began to see the names of the children she had posed with for the photo Tuesday morning, when they were all alive and holding their school awards: Jose Flores, Xavier Lopez, Alexandria Rubio, Layla Salazar, Annabell Rodriguez and Uziyah Garcia. The children were killed in a classroom where she should have been seated on Tuesday afternoon.
On each of their crosses, she simply wrote her name: “Kat”. And then she found herself staring at a cross that bore Eliahana Torres’ name.
“He’s my best friend,” Kat said expressionlessly.
Among the tributes and keepsakes of the slain girl, someone had placed a sheet of paper printed with pictures of the faces of the victims.
Kat stared at those faces for a moment. Then she put her bouquet next to them.