'It was the wrong decision.' For 79 minutes, police failed to act as children died at Uvalde school

The 18-year-old assailant had already crashed his car in a ditch, walked around the outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, while shooting, and fired at two men by the time he got to a propped-open door in the rear of the school and went inside.

He reached a fourth grade classroom and started shooting into it from the outside. He entered and locked the door with children and teachers inside. More gunfire was heard.

With the attacker locked inside, a commanding officer decided this was no longer an active-shooter situation, according to Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw. Instead, officers treated the shooter as a barricaded subject, a judgment that may have contributed to the decision not to break into the classroom immediately. 

“It was the wrong decision. Period," McCraw said. "There's no excuse for that." 

Seventy-nine minutes passed between the time the gunman began firing outside the school and the moment police shot him dead. While police failed to act, 10-year-olds and their teachers were making frantic calls to 911.

Between bouts of tears, McCraw acknowledged that the decision was not only wrong but catastrophic. Having as many as 19 officers wait in a school hallway for more officers and equipment while students and teachers called 911 from inside the classroom could have cost lives.

Uvalde community members pray as they remmber those killed at Robb Elementary School at the Country Fairplex on May 25, 2022.

Law enforcement officers, who stood outside the elementary school with rifles strapped across their chests while the shooter was inside, encountered parents crying and pleading for them to rush the building, according to video posted online. 

Inside the school, at least part of the delay involved trying to find the janitor to locate the key, according to law enforcement accounts. Once officers entered, they shot the gunman, authorities said.

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State officials wouldn't say how many lives were lost as a result of the errors, but the decision to move the situation from active shooter to barricaded subject may have been one of the most consequential. Nineteen students and two teachers died that day, and several more were injured. 

Failing to stop the shooter outside the building

As the shooting began, police failed to stop the gunman before he made it into the building.

A 911 call had reported that a car crashed in front of the school and that the man in it had a gun. Police officers showed up at a funeral home nearby, McCraw said.

The school resource officer, who was not on the scene, heard the call and drove as fast as he could to the back of the school, but the gunman was still in the front hunched behind his vehicle.

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The gunman fired the first shots at 11:31 a.m. at two men who were at the funeral home across the street and saw the crash, McCraw said. The men ran away and were not hurt.

The gunman started walking around the building and fired indiscriminately toward at least three classrooms on the northwest side of the building before finding a propped open door in the rear of the school. He made it to a fourth grade classroom and fired more than 100 rounds.

Within two minutes, three police officers with the Uvalde Police Department entered the building. The gunman shot at the officers with the classroom door closed, grazing two officers.

The school took to Facebook to provide an update, but the update did not communicate the gravity of the situation.

“Robb Elementary Parents: Please know at this time Robb Elementary is under a Lockdown Status due to gunshots in the area,” the post said. “The students and staff are safe in the building.”

Police arrived, ignored bystanders

While the gunman was in the building, many police officers from different agencies stood outside the campus, some wearing bulletproof vests with rifles strapped across their chests. 

Video that surfaced on Storyful from 12:44 p.m. local time showed bystanders walking around the school parking lot calling out desperately, yelling at the officers and pleading for them to enter the building.

"This is inhumane," one woman was heard saying on a video posted on YouTube.

Another officer was on all fours holding a parent down. Another officer stood watch in front of them, yellow taser in hand and rifle slung over his body. 

“What are you doing to her?” an onlooker shouted.

Nearby, a man with SHERIFF emblazoned on a bulletproof vest walked around in a khaki uniform with a rifle across his chest. 

Albert Martinez, from left, Elida Gonzales, Amber Gonzales and Nyla Martinez, in her stroller, visit the memorial at Robb Elementary School Wednesday, May 25, 2022, in Uvalde. At least 19 students and two adults died in a shooting at a Robb elementary school Tuesday, marking the deadliest school shooting in the state's history.

Javier Cazares, whose 9-year-old daughter, Jackie, and 10-year-old niece, Annabell Rodriguez, died in the shooting, told the USA TODAY Network he rushed to the school when he heard about the shooting and arrived around noon. 

Cazares said it appeared tht no police were inside the building during the time he was waiting outside. Several parents yelled for officers to enter the building to confront the gunman, and when the officers did not, the parents threatened to enter themselves.  

Angeli Rose Gomez, a farm supervisor, told The Wall Street Journal she drove 40 miles to get to the school to find officers waiting around. 

“The police were doing nothing,” Gomez said. “They were just standing outside the fence. They weren’t going in there or running anywhere.”

She said U.S. Marshals arrested her for intervening in an active police investigation.

Border patrol told to stand back as 911 calls flooded in

Law enforcement officers such as U.S. Customs and Border Patrol had started to arrive by 11:51 a.m., 20 minutes into the shooter’s rampage, according to McCraw. Calls to 911 from the fourth grade classroom then poured in. 

It’s not clear how much of the information made it to officers on the ground.

The Uvalde Police Department kept the federal agents from going in sooner, The New York Times reported.  

At 12:03 p.m., a girl called 911. She whispered into the phone that she was in room 112.

Robb Elementary again posted on Facebook to say all campuses in the district were under lockdown.

“The students and staff are safe in the buildings,” the posts said. “The buildings are secure in a Lockdown Status. Your cooperation is needed at this time by not visiting the campus.”

The girl called back and said multiple people were dead.

She called again.

More border patrol agents arrived.

Finally, Robb Elementary posts on Facebook revealed the horror that was unfolding.

“There is an active shooter at Robb Elementary,” the post said. “Law enforcement is on site. Your cooperation is needed at this time by not visiting the campus. As soon as more information is gathered it will be shared. The rest of the district is under a Secure Status.”

Gap in series of events

Twenty-nine minutes, from 12:21 p.m. to 12:50 p.m., are largely unaccounted for by police.

At 12:21 p.m., McCraw said ballistic shields arrived. At 12:44 p.m., the Storyful video surfaced. By the time authorities made it into the classroom with the key and shot the gunman, it was 12:50 p.m., 79 minutes after he fired the first shot.

During at least part of that time, officers were working with a janitor to get the key to the fourth-grade classroom.

McCraw said officers moved slowly because the commanding officer had decided to treat the situation as a barricaded suspect instead of an active shooter.

Grieving families angry with police response

Esmeralda Bravo, 64, who lost a granddaughter and a grandniece in the shooting, shook with anger as she discussed the police response.

“They didn’t act fast enough. That was their job. That’s one of the pledges they make,” she said. “They should have instantly gone in. And they waited a whole hour.”

Bravo said the family spent agonizingly long hours waiting for an update on the killing that Tuesday, not realizing the two girls had been killed almost immediately.

“We were going crazy looking for them and all the time their bodies were in the classroom,” Bravo said. “They were such sweet children.”

Contributing: Chuck Lindell, Austin-American Statesman