The small Texas town of Uvalde has begun burying its children, killed last week in the deadliest school shooting in the United States in a decade.
Funerals were scheduled on Tuesday for two 10-year-old girls who were among the 19 students, all aged nine to 11, and two teachers killed when a gunman burst into Robb Elementary School on May 24 and opened fire in a fourth-grade classroom.
Hundreds of mourners turned out for an afternoon mass to remember Amerie Jo Garza. Six pallbearers wearing white shirts and gloves carried her small casket into Sacred Heart Catholic Church, which turned away several mourners after reaching capacity.
Maite Rodriguez’s funeral was scheduled for later Tuesday at one of the funeral homes in the town.
Erika Santiago, her husband and their two children wore purple shirts adorned with images of the victims to Amerie’s funeral. Santiago described Amerie as “a nice little girl who smiled a lot” and who was “so humble and charismatic but full of life”.
Santiago said her 10-year-old son, Adriel, watched in horror when the first images came out on the news after the shooting and he recognised his friends Amerie and Maite.
“It affected him so much,” Santiago said. “He told me he did not want to go to school fearing that could happen. He told me, ‘Mom, I just don’t feel safe.’”
The small community of about 16,000 people is still reeling in the aftermath of the deadly attack, which has spurred calls across the US for stricter gun control laws, but residents have banded together to support one another.
This week alone, funerals are planned for 11 children and teacher Irma Garcia.
Vincent Salazar’s 11-year-old daughter, Layla, has the last of the scheduled services — her visitation is June 15 with the funeral the following day. Salazar said the family likely won’t see Layla’s body until soon before the visitation.
“It’s strange because usually when somebody dies, these things happen in three or four days,” Salazar said. “It’s not something that goes on this long. I understand there were other children as well, but we’re just waiting to get her back. That’s all we’re focused on.”
On Monday, artists raced to complete a mural depicting white doves on the side of the Ace Bail Bonds building, near the cemetery.
“Those kids were full of life and dreams,” said one of the artists, Yanira Castillo, 34, who has lived her entire life in Uvalde. “A town does not get over that. It will affect us forever.”
As family and friends unleash their grief, investigators will push for answers about how police responded to the shooting, and lawmakers have said they will consider what can be done to stem the gun violence permeating the nation.
The US Justice Department is investigating law enforcement’s response to the shooting, after Texas officials revealed that students and teachers repeatedly begged 911 operators for help as a police commander told more than a dozen officers to wait in a school hallway.
“With the benefit of hindsight … from where I’m sitting right now, of course, it was not the right decision,” Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw told reporters on Friday. “It was the wrong decision [to wait]. There’s no excuse for that.”
Pete Arredondo, chief of the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District police department, who has come under criticism for his response to the shooting. He was scheduled to be sworn in as a recently elected member of the city council on Tuesday, but that meeting was postponed.
US President Joe Biden, who last year called mass shootings in the US a “national embarrassment”, visited Uvalde on Sunday with First Lady Jill Biden, and pledged to act on gun control.
On Monday, Biden expressed some optimism that there may be some bipartisan support to tighten restrictions on the kind of high-powered weapons used by the attacker.
“I think things have gotten so bad that everybody’s getting more rational, at least that’s my hope,” Biden told reporters before honouring the nation’s fallen in Memorial Day remarks at Arlington National Cemetery.
“The Second Amendment was never absolute,” Biden said, referring to the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, which gun rights activists often invoke to reject gun control measures. The Second Amendment guarantees the right to “keep and bear arms”.
“You couldn’t buy a cannon when the Second Amendment was passed. You couldn’t go out and buy a lot of weapons,” Biden said.