Sat. Mar 25th, 2023

One daughter left Robb Elementary early. Another was trapped inside the school. A mother’s desperate search, and a family’s struggle to move forward.

Marisela Roque, right, walks across her yard in Uvalde, Tex., with three of her children. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Marisela Roque, right, walks across her yard in Uvalde, Tex., with three of her children. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

UVALDE, Tex. — Marisela Roque was in the Walmart at the northeastern edge of town when her phone began buzzing. It was her sister, Araseli Ruiz, with disturbing news: There was a shooting in progress at Robb Elementary School.

It was a school that Roque, 34, knew well. Her parents’ ranch-style home on Old Carrizo Road overlooked the campus through a stand of oak trees, and she had been inside the school that morning for the student award ceremony that marked the close of the academic year.

One of the awardees was Roque’s 10-year-old daughter, Kat, who had grinned from a stage festooned with pink balloons as she held up her honor roll certificate alongside her fourth-grade classmates. Afterward, Kat begged her mother to take her out of school early, and Roque reluctantly agreed, reasoning that the girl could help her shop for a shoe rack.

And so it was that Kat was at Walmart to see the frightening expression on her mother’s face when she said they needed to leave, abandoning their shopping cart mid-aisle to sprint for the family’s silver Chevrolet pickup in the parking lot.

Roque told her something was happening at the school but she didn’t know what, and Kat didn’t ask questions when her mother flipped on her hazard lights and began blowing through one red light after another on Main Street.

And nothing needed to be said, because Kat knew that her sister — another of Roque’s daughters, 9-year-old Ariely — was still inside Robb Elementary, and that Roque had chosen, earlier in the day, to leave her behind.

That decision, when Roque made it, could not have seemed less important.

The celebratory mood of school’s release for summer was already upon Uvalde. On Monday, a group of Uvalde High School seniors — including Roque’s eldest daughter, Johnbenay Garcia — had trouped through the school in crimson caps and gowns to greet the children, part of an annual ritual that preceded the high school’s graduation.

On Tuesday morning the elementary students gathered for their awards ceremony. Kat was recognized for straight A’s and B’s, as well as with an award for “paw-some” computer skills, featuring a giant paw print. Ariely, a year below her sister, received an award for outstanding citizenship.

In a photograph taken at 10:51 a.m., less than an hour before shots would begin ringing through the school, Kat can be seen standing in a row of children clutching their certificates in front of a stage. To 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 with whom Kat was usually inseparable.

As the ceremony wound down, Roque said goodbye to her daughters.

“Can I go with you?” Kat asked.

Roque reminded her that school wasn’t out until 3 p.m.

“Stay,” she said firmly.

But Kat said all her class would be doing that afternoon was watching a movie. She would be bored, she told her mother. It occurred to Roque that Kat might help her with some shopping for the two-bedroom house they had just moved into on the outskirts of Uvalde.

“Where are you going, Kat?” Her teacher asked as he saw her leaving.

Roque explained to Reyes that she was going to sign her daughter out for the afternoon. Then she went to the front desk.

“Just the one?” the receptionist confirmed.

“The other doesn’t really want to leave,” Roque joked.

A little over an hour later, Roque’s truck screeched to a halt in front of her parents’ house across from the school. She looked at her phone again.

“They said there’s a shooting at Robb,” her eldest daughter, Johnbenay, had texted.

“Ariely is in there,” Roque replied, with a weeping-face emoji.

Police were everywhere. Roque led Kat into a house at the back of her parent’s property and told her to lock the door and stay there, no matter what happened.

Soon Kat began texting with her older sister.

“Benay is me kat it is scary because I keep hearing like thousands and thousands of gunshots,” she wrote.

“It’s okay baby just stay by mom,” Johnbenay wrote back.

Shortly after that, Johnbenay texted again.

“Anything yet?”

Roque had spent most of her life in Uvalde. Her father, Jorge Roque, immigrated to the United States when he was 12 from Palaú, about 150 miles away across the Mexican border.

She loved many things about her hometown: The quiet and seemingly changeless pace of life, the open fields where her daughters could ride the family’s four horses. But above all she loved Uvalde’s intensely communal spirit.

The town’s population had grown to about 15,000, but people still said everybody knew everybody, and to Roque that seemed true. She certainly couldn’t go long without encountering a neighbor, or friend, or aunt, or cousin. They were at the grocery store, and at the snow cone place, and at Ofelia’s, the restaurant owned by her mother and where Roque worked as a waitress.

Yet the crowd she joined outside the police perimeter at Robb on Tuesday was unlike any she had seen before in Uvalde. People were crying, angry and bewildered. Some were yelling at police officers.

“It was chaos,” she later recalled.

Roque stood with many parents on one side of the school, near Hillcrest Memorial Funeral Home. Her father waited with others at the back of the campus, near his house. Time passed, though she couldn’t say how much. The crowd grew angrier, and so did she.

Then she felt her phone buzzing again.

It was her sister, who not long ago had delivered to her the news of the shooting. Now she had more news.

The girl had emerged from the back of the school and had run into the desperate embrace of Jorge, her grandfather. Roque joined them outside the house on Old Carrizo Road, where she too embraced her daughter.

Ariely had been hiding behind the curtain of the stage where she and her sister received their awards that morning, quietly praying until they were led out of the building. She never encountered the shooter.

Roque thanked God as she held her daughter, again and again. But she soon became aware that there were limits to what she could celebrate.

Kat was still cowering in the nearby house. None of her classmates from the fourth grade were anywhere to be seen.

Roque looked around at the other parents, many of them her friends, who were straining for a glimpse of their own children. One approached Roque with a question.

“Have you seen my daughter?”

As bullets ricocheted around him, a Uvalde student found safety in silence

Late on Friday afternoon Roque was once again leaving the Walmart at the northeastern edge of town, this time with her 11-month-old baby, Rodolfo, and Kat and Ariely. Her shopping list was very different from the one she had just three days earlier.

In the cart were bouquets, which the store was now giving away, and Sharpie markers.

“How is everybody?” The cashier asked Roque.

“So far, good,” Roque replied quietly.

“All right,” she then said to the cashier. “See you later, Dora.”

The family climbed into the silver Chevrolet pickup. They were not in a hurry, as Roque had been on Tuesday, and the truth was that they were not eager to reach their next stop. Roque drove at a steady pace down Main Street, running no red lights.

They passed a Texas state flag at half-staff, and a Subway sign board that now read “Uvalde Strong.” They passed the impromptu memorials that were appearing someplace new every day as the sun rose. Class photographs. Wreaths. Rows of empty chairs.

There were so many children dead. Why had her own been spared? Roque couldn’t stop thinking about it, although her thoughts seemed to lead nowhere.

“It keeps playing in my head: What if I had left her there? I would have felt that guilt for the rest of my life,” she said.

Roque’s mother, the matron at Ofelia’s restaurant, told her God’s voice had guided her to take Kat out of school on Tuesday morning, that there were angels watching over them. But why had those angels not watched over so many others? Roque felt like she had glimpsed some truth many people went their whole lives without seeing, something to do with chance or fate, but she didn’t know what it was.

“Honestly, I don’t know. I keep thinking about it. I just keep thinking about it,” she said. “I could have left her.”

And now their destination was in view: the Uvalde town square, with its worn stone fountain surrounded by 21 white crosses.

It was just after 5 p.m., that hour of the day in South Texas where the sun is an increment too bright for the human eye. Roque parked on a side street and stepped out of the truck with her children into the 96-degree heat.

The square was not nearly as crowded as it would be in the coming hours, when the votive candles were lit and television crews began their evening broadcasts. But there were still a few photographers and camera crews roaming the site.

Kat stopped abruptly and turned her back on the memorial.

“Guys, they’re going to take pictures of me,” she said.

Roque told her she would be okay. Kat had said on the way over that she was afraid of crying, and her mom had told her that there was nothing wrong with that. But her face, like Ariely’s, betrayed almost no emotion as they approached the crosses bearing the names of their dead schoolmates.

On the square they met with Roque’s sister, Ruiz, and niece, Aleah. The girls uncapped the markers they had just purchased while Roque held the bouquets.

“Aleah,” Kat instructed her cousin, “we have to sign all of them.”

Ariely followed behind her older sister, and Roque followed behind all of them, watching her daughters through large, dark sunglasses.

Messages had been scrawled in most of the available space on the crosses, assuring the dead children that they were loved, and missed, and in heaven, where the people of Uvalde would see them again. The girls had to reach across waist-high mounds of flowers and stuffed animals to find corners where they could write.

As she circled the fountain, Kat began to see the names of the children with whom she had posed for the photograph Tuesday morning, when they had all been 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 sitting on Tuesday afternoon.

On each of their crosses she simply wrote her name: “Kat.” And then she found herself looking at a cross that bore the name Eliahana Torres.

“That’s my best friend,” Kat said, expressionless.

Among the slain girl’s tributes and mementos, someone had placed a sheet of paper printed with photos of the victims’ faces.

Kat stared for a while at those faces. Then she placed her bouquet alongside them.

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