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Questions around police response time add to Uvalde families pain


It's been five days since one of the deadliest shootings in U.S. history. The people of Uvalde, Texas, continue to grapple with the loss of 19 children and two teachers. And now added to their pain are questions about why police didn't move more quickly to try to rescue the children trapped inside Robb Elementary School.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I wouldn't wait another hour. I wouldn't. I would not. I would break in. I would.

RASCOE: That sentiment voiced by a resident whose granddaughter lost a friend is a common one. President Biden is in Uvalde today to console the victims' families, but community members want more than condolences. NPR's Pien Huang is in Uvalde. Thanks for joining us, Pien.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Tell us more about what's happening there this weekend.

HUANG: Well, Uvalde is a community that's very much grieving, and people are just trying to find ways to cope and to help. Every day, local residents bring fresh wreaths and flowers to the site of the shooting. And as you move through the city, you see people trying to support, comfort each other while dealing with their disbelief and grief. I visited the Herby Ham Activity Center during their blood drive yesterday, and that's where I met Tony Navarros-Diaz (ph), who had come to donate blood. Navarros-Diaz says that the shooter and his grandfather worked for him just a few months ago installing air conditioners. He was shocked when he heard the news because it didn't square with his impression of the young man.

TONY NAVARROS-DIAZ: He was not on drugs or he never smoke or drink. That's why I was surprised when I saw him on TV. But killing innocent kids...

SUE SCHWENCKE-RANKIN: Uvalde's never going to be the same. I hate the expression new normal. You heard that after COVID and everything, and there is no such thing.

HUANG: That's Sue Schwencke-Rankin. She runs the activity center that hosted the blood drive. Nobody is really ready to talk about healing or moving on, but they do talk about supporting each other day by day. So there's grief, there's solidarity and there's anger as details of the shooting emerge that show a delayed police response.

RASCOE: And that delayed response - like, what are local residents saying about it?

HUANG: Well, a lot of them are angry, and they don't understand why the calls were made. Elia Zamarripa was born and raised here in Uvalde.

ELIA ZAMARRIPA: There's videos where cops were just standing there, holding people down. I mean, you know, it was a bad decision. It was a bad decision. To me, it is. There's a lot of angry people around here - a lot of angry people - and it's going to continue.

HUANG: There's a lot of unanswered questions right now. Texas Department of Public Safety says their investigation shows that 19 police officers stood in the hallway outside the classroom while children inside called 911, giving updates on how many of their classmates were still alive, pleading for the police to come in. Zamarripa has a 10-year-old granddaughter that lost her friend in the shooting, and that friend was at her birthday party just two weeks ago.

ZAMARRIPA: Still they don't understand. But later on, when she has another birthday party and she doesn't show up, what are you going to say? I mean, this is going to continue for the rest of her life. She's going to go, why isn't she here? You know, she was here when I turned 10. That's the hardest part.

HUANG: I met Zamarripa when she and two friends were writing the messages Uvalde Strong and Pray for Uvalde in bright green letters in a storefront window on Main Street. It's a message that you see on billboards and truck windows. It's everywhere these days.

RASCOE: President Biden is set to visit Uvalde today. He'll meet with community leaders and victims' families. What do local residents want from the president?

HUANG: Well, Uvalde County voted 60% in favor of Donald Trump in the last presidential election. Gilbert Gallegos is from Uvalde and was back to support the community. And while some people will surely welcome Biden's visit, Gallegos says the president's not very popular here.

GILBERT GALLEGOS: A lot of people don't like him here, so who knows what type of response it is? All the security that's involved for him to come in - right? - it's going to disrupt people's daily lives.

HUANG: Gallegos was out for a walk near the stadium that would have hosted high school graduation on Friday. His parents lived across the street from the shooter, and they helped his first victim, his grandmother, after she was shot. You know, some residents I spoke with were frustrated with the Texas governor, with the president, with any politician who hasn't made changes to gun violence - to reduce gun violence despite the mass shootings in the recent past. And for some, like Kevin Ermis, the questions go even higher. He's an optometrist in Uvalde who lost six of his patients in the shooting. He spoke at a Life Church vigil last night on the north side of town.


KEVIN ERMIS: God, where are you? Questions many of us are asking ourselves right now. And I think these are legitimate questions. After all, we are human and we think as humans do. We don't understand and we won't understand.

HUANG: Ayesha, burials of the victims begin tomorrow.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Pien Huang. Thanks for talking with us.

HUANG: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.