The tears started before anyone even spoke. Inside a Uvalde county building that usually hosts the rodeo in this part of south-west Texas, young children and parents cried and held each other. Together, they waited for a group of pastors to offer some words of comfort for their unfathomable loss.
This week in Uvalde began with a mood of celebration. The high school graduation was to be held on Friday – giant senior portraits lined the lawn outside city hall. Young children were wrapping up the school year as well, attending classroom parties and awards ceremonies. But on Tuesday, life in this largely Latino town was upended when a gunman barricaded himself in an elementary school classroom and slaughtered 19 children and two teachers.
The shooting at Robb elementary school is the deadliest in a US school in nearly 10 years. The attack, the latest in a long line of gun violence in America, came just 10 days after the deadly shooting in Buffalo and has left Uvalde and the country reeling.
With all schools in the district canceled for the remainder of the year and the town mourning for those it lost, hundreds of people came to a vigil at the Uvalde County Fairplex arena on Wednesday. There, pastors, seated on a stage on the dirt normally reserved for horses, tried to offer solace to their community.
“Pray for those children that saw what happened to their friends … pray for each of us as we help them,” said Pastor Tony Grubin, feeling nervous as he addressed the crowd of adults and children, many of them wearing red school shirts. “Evil will not win.”
Grubin and other pastors urged the town to rely on its faith and on one another, encouraging them to join together in prayer. As the pastors spoke, attendees in the bleachers bowed their heads, sometimes joining hands and singing or just holding loved ones as they cried.
Grubin said the idea for the vigil came up on Tuesday night as he and other pastors sat with families who were waiting to hear whether their loved ones had survived. “We thought tonight should just be as simple, as respectful and as loving as we knew how to be,” said Grubin, who said several prayers to the crowd.
“I’m afraid to be in front of people, but my fear is inconsequential to the needs of others,” he added. “We just wanted to provide some encouragement and an expression of love.”
Sophia Fulcher, 15, reunited with her friends at the vigil for the first time since Tuesday when her school, along with all the others in town was on lockdown. “It was emotional, just a lot of emotions. I don’t know how to feel,” she said. “How sickening it is for someone to do something so violent like that.”
In this tight community of 16,000, the shooting has touched almost everyone, if not directly then through relatives of friends and co-workers.
Downtown on Wednesday afternoon, cars honked and passersby waved to a group holding supportive signs. Ravenn Vasquez and several friends spent the afternoon on Main Street waving their signs with phrases like “Uvalde strong”.
“We just didn’t know what to do. We don’t want to be glued to our phones and just mourning,” said Vasquez, who graduated from Uvalde high in 2019. “We want to be there for the community and let them know we’re out here.
“I haven’t slept,” she added. “I couldn’t sleep last night. I couldn’t shake that feeling … you hear about this in other cities. It’s really sad to see in Uvalde.”
Signs of what happened this week are all around, from the dozens of messages reading “pray for Uvalde” and “Uvalde strong” at businesses to the endless stream of news media vans at the civic center and the elementary school. Outside the campus itself, dozens of white, yellow and red flowers surrounded the Robb elementary school sign, barely visible in between the TV cameras and law enforcement vehicles.
The welcoming town is known for its rivers, a Labor Day rodeo and music festival, and as the birthplace of Matthew McConaughey, Vasquez said, but now it’s known for something horrific. Vasquez tried not to think of that. Instead she tries to remember the happy moments the elementary school students experienced, like an event on Monday where the graduating seniors came to visit.
Desiree Vera was at Robb elementary school on Monday, where she and other high school seniors, dressed in their red caps and gowns, stopped by their old classrooms and high-fived the young students: “It was sweet to see the school and all the kids who were one day gonna be us.”
No one ever expects such a tragedy to befall their community, several residents remarked, and coming to terms with the fact that it happened here is difficult.
“You would never think that something like this could happen in such a small town, but then you have to think, don’t ever think it can’t happen to you, because it can and it did happen to us,” said Desiree Vera, at Uvalde High senior.
Her sister, Monica, added: “It just doesn’t feel real. Did this actually happen in our home town?” Monica was in the middle of a geometry class at the high school when the shooting started, prompting their school to go into lockdown for four hours. “I don’t think we’ll ever recover. Everybody is close here, so it affects everybody.”