By Brad Brooks and Gabriella Borter
UVALDE, Texas (Reuters) -Investigators in Texas on Saturday sought to determine how critical mistakes were made in the response to the deadly Uvalde school shooting, including why nearly 20 officers remained outside a classroom as children placed panicked 911 calls for help.
Why the officers waited in the hallway nearly an hour before entering and fatally shooting the gunman is at the heart of a probe by the Texas Department of Public Safety into the massacre of 19 children and two teachers in the deadliest U.S. school shooting in nearly a decade.
With calls mounting for an independent probe and criticism of the law-enforcement response growing, police from cities as far away as Houston and Dallas have arrived in Uvalde to help support local authorities, in some cases providing protection to Uvalde’s own police, the mayor, and the gun shop where the shooter bought two semi-automatic rifles.
Meanwhile, investigators are still searching for a motive. Salvador Ramos, an 18-year-old high school dropout, had no criminal record and no history of mental illness, although threatening messages he sent on social media are coming to light.
At least two children placed 911 calls from a pair of adjoining fourth-grade classrooms after Ramos entered on Tuesday with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, Colonel Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said earlier this week.
“He’s in room 112,” a girl whispered on the phone at 12:03 p.m. The same girl had implored a 911 operator to “please send the police now” at 12:43 p.m. and again four minutes later. At 12:51, or more than 45 minutes after she made her first 911 call, a U.S. Border Patrol-led tactical team stormed in and ended the siege at the Robb Elementary School.
In all, at least eight calls to emergency services were placed from inside while law enforcement waited outside. It remains unclear how many of the 9- and 10-year-old schoolchildren may have been killed during that time. The two children who placed calls survived.
The on-site commander, the chief of the school district’s police department, mistakenly determined that Ramos was barricaded inside and that children were no longer at risk, giving officers time to prepare for an assault, McCraw said.
“It was the wrong decision, period,” McCraw said, acknowledging that standard protocols call for police to confront an active school shooter immediately, rather than wait for backup.
Border Patrol tactical agents at the scene were frustrated with a lack of clear direction from the commander, believing it delayed efforts to end the attack, said a law-enforcement source familiar with the matter.
When the Border Patrol agents entered the classroom behind a ballistic shield, the shooter emerged from a closet firing at them, the source said. Ramos was shot and killed.
“I hate to believe that some of those kids could have been saved if law enforcement would have engaged them immediately after those children were shot as opposed to an hour later after some had bled out,” said another law enforcement source familiar with the incident. “That’s what’s heartbreaking.”
The official accounts of how police responded to the shooting flip-flopped wildly. Texas Governor Greg Abbott, the day after the killings, praised the courage of police, who he said had saved lives. On Friday, he said he was “livid” and that he had been misled by investigators about the response.
U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro, a Democrat from Texas who has called for an independent FBI investigation into the police response, visited the school on Saturday and told Reuters he was deeply disturbed about the conflicting information that has emerged.
At least two state Department of Public Safety officers were among the 19 officers who waited outside the classroom, yet the DPS director and the state’s governor have both said they were misled, Castro said.
“I don’t understand who exactly lied to them about what happened,” Castro said. “State authorities are trying to blame locals for everything that happened. But right now it’s not just adding up.”
A DPS spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Javier Cazares, whose daughter, Jacklyn, 9, died at the hospital after being shot inside the school, is anguished at the thought she died because of the long wait for help. He wants answers on what went wrong with the police response, and he wants those who made mistakes held accountable.
“My little girl was shot, and who knows how long she was bleeding on the floor of her classroom? God knows how long she was gasping for her little life,” Cazares told Reuters.
HONORING THE DEAD
The memorial in the main square of Uvalde, a town of 16,000 people west of San Antonio, was busy on Saturday. Families lingered around the fountain and placed flowers, balloons and stuffed animals at 21 crosses erected to honor the dead. Kids wrote messages on the sidewalk in chalk.
Meanwhile, 280 miles (450 km) away in Houston, about 100 protesters gathered for a second day of demonstrations outside the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association gun rights group, chanting “gun control now” in a tense standoff with NRA supporters.
Members of the Proud Boys, a right-wing militia, were on another side of a barricade, separated by police, denouncing the protesters and supporting NRA members.
President Joe Biden, a Democrat who has urged Congress to approve new gun restrictions following the shooting and a massacre just 10 days earlier at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, will visit Uvalde on Sunday to pay respects to the victims.
(Reporting by Brad Brooks, Gabriella Borter in Uvalde, Adrees Latif and Arathy Somasekhar in Houston, Kristina Cooke in San Francisco, and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Writing by Nathan Layne and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Daniel Wallis)