A group of 19 police officers stood for about 45 minutes in the hallway outside Texas classrooms where the gunman killed 19 third- and fourth-grade students and two teachers this week before US Border Patrol agents unlocked the door to confront and kill him, Texas authorities said on Friday.
While the police were in that school hallway Tuesday, 911 emergency calls were coming from inside the two adjoining classrooms where the shooter, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos was holed up, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw said.
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“With the benefit of hindsight … from where I’m sitting right now, of course, it was not the right decision. It was the wrong decision [to wait]. There’s no excuse for that,” said McGraw in an emotional, 40-minute media briefing on Friday.
The police chief in charge of the forces inside the school believed the incident had changed from an “active shooter” situation to a “barricaded suspect”, McCraw said.
On the street outside, parents were pleading with police to enter the classroom to stop the killer or to let them go into the school themselves. Video showed parents breaking through yellow police tape and demanding officers go into the school. Now, questions are being raised about why it took police so long to enter the classroom.
McGraw said Texas law enforcement doctrine and training requires officers to attempt to neutralise a gunman in any active shooter situation. “You go to the gun. You find it. You neutralize it. Period,” he said.
“When there’s an active shooter, the rules change,” he said.
During the attack, teachers and children inside Robb Elementary School classrooms called 911 asking for help at least seven times, including one girl who called multiple times, on one call pleading, “Please send the police now,” McCraw said. She eventually escaped alive.
But, after a barrage of gunfire when the suspect first entered the classrooms, officers inside the school were receiving only sporadic fire from the gunman through a classroom door.
A decision by the incident commander was made to wait for others to arrive with ballistic shields, McCraw said. Police then used the school janitor’s keys to open the door before entering and killing Ramos.
McGraw offered new details of the timeline of the attack.
Ramos crashed his pick-up truck near the school at 11:28am (16:28 GMT), drawing the attention of two workers from a nearby funeral home. They saw him get out of the passenger side door with a backpack and a gun and he shot at them as they ran away.
Ramos then walked along the side of the school shooting into three classrooms from outside, McGraw said. A teacher called 911 at 11:30am (16:30 GMT).
The shooter entered the school through a back door that had been previously propped open by a teacher at about 11:33am, and headed towards classrooms 111, and 112, which were adjoined by one bathroom. Ramos fired more than 100 rounds into the classrooms, McGraw said.
At about 11:35am (16:35 GMT) three police officers enter the school through the same door Ramos used. Two were grazed by gunfire in an exchange with the gunman. Soon after that four other officers entered the school and by 12:03pm (17:03 GMT), there were about 19 officers in the hallway, according to McGraw.
That’s when the on-site commander, the chief of the school district’s police department in Uvalde who was in the hallway decided to wait for more officers rather than attack the gunman.
The commander believed Ramos was barricaded inside and that children were no longer at risk, giving police time to prepare, McCraw said.
There were at least eight calls from the classroom to 911 between 12:03pm (17:03 GMT), a half an hour after Ramos first entered the building, and 12:50pm (17:50 GMT), when police entered and killed him.
Some of the mostly nine- and 10-year-old students trapped with the gunman survived the massacre, including at least two who called 911, McCraw said, though he did not offer a specific tally.
Law enforcement officers, including border police, obtained a key from a janitor, and at about 12:50pm entered the classroom and killed the suspect, McCraw said.
Prior to the attack, Ramos had discussed buying a gun in Instagram chats with four people McGraw said. In March, one person wrote, “word on the street is you’re buying a gun”. Ramos replied, “just bought something rn,” according to McCraw.
Days later Ramos posted “10 more days” and another Instagram user asked, “are you going to shoot up a school or something?” according to McCraw. “No and stop asking dumb questions, and you’ll see”, Ramos replied.
A total of 58 magazines with more than 1,600 rounds of ammunition were found at the school or in Ramos’s car, McGraw said. Police found 142 spent cartridges inside the school, and have audio evidence of more than 100 shots fired, he said.
FBI special agent Oliver Rich Jr said 200 FBI personnel have been in Uvalde since the shooting, interviewing people and supporting the community and assisting the Texas Rangers in the investigation.
“There are a lot of questions and a lot of frustration and our hearts go out to the families and the victims of this tragedy,” Rich told reporters.
“If the facts bear out that there is a federal nexus, then the FBI will conduct an appropriate investigation at that time,” Rich said. “For now, we continue in this to support the Texas Rangers.”