A firefighter, an EMT and a police officer tell PEOPLE about the horrific scene during and after Tuesday’s mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas
Moments after a gunman opened fire at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, the normally quiet town became a scene of unimaginable horror.
First responders at the scene could still hear the sound of gunshots inside the school. Screaming children and their frantic teachers poured out of every exit. Panicked parents — some barefoot, others wearing business suits — rushed to the school in a desperate search for their children.
As the shooting continued, some parents did whatever it took to try to protect their children.
“Fathers smashed windows, and physically pulled their kids out of classrooms,” says Ernest “Chip” King, a Uvalde firefighter who was one of the first responders at the scene. “There was a lot of chaos.”
A Uvalde police officer helped corral students to safety. “Teachers were doing head counts of their students,” says the officer, “but there was panic because they couldn’t remember which kids had been absent. It was the end of the school year and a lot of kids were missing. I saw one teacher trying not to cry as she asked the kids who had been absent that day.”
Firefighters and police officers attempted to corral the throng of panicked parents, desperately trying to create some sort of order out of the chaos. “There was lot of angst and a lot of fear,” says King. “Parents were wondering where their kids were, trying to find them amidst all the chaos. They were terrified.”
“We were trying to keep the area secure,” King continues. “We worked with EMS ambulances to get them in and out. There were helicopters overhead.”
Within an hour, about 500 first responders had arrived at the scene from as far away as San Antonio, about 85 miles away.
“I was stabilizing a little girl, she was so tiny,” says an EMT who wanted to be identified only by his first name, Rey, who arrived at the scene 20 minutes after the shooting. “There was blood everywhere. She had been shot in the chest and the shoulder. We were trying to stop the bleeding. I looked at her and I was like ‘She’s just a baby. Who would shoot a baby?'”
Even as the ambulance pulled away from the school, frantic parents tried to peer into the vehicle’s windows to see who the patient was. “Everyone wanted to see,” says Rey. “They wanted to make sure it wasn’t their kid.”
“A father came up to me and asked in Spanish if it was a boy or a girl inside [the ambulance],” says Rey. “He was looking for his son, and when I told him that it was a girl, he just ran to another ambulance.”
As many parents had tearful reunions with their children, other parents felt their desperation turn to dread.
“People told me that they had been to the two places where the children were being reunited with their parents, and their kids weren’t there,” says King. “Unfortunately, they knew exactly what that meant.”
Initially, there were hundreds of people at a local civic center, awaiting reunification with their children. As the afternoon went on, the number dwindled to dozens, and then to a handful.
“The faces of the parents changed as it went on,” says the officer. “They looked … beaten down. It was sinking in that there was a reason why their son or daughter wasn’t there, and they didn’t know what to do next.”
At Uvalde Memorial Hospital, parents sat in the waiting room, awaiting word. “Two women were sobbing, clinging to each other,” says Rey. “The energy in that waiting room was so dark, watching people have the worst day of their entire lives.”
As night fell, the community began placing flowers, signs, photos and stuffed animals at a makeshift memorial near the school.
“This is a close-knit community,” says King. “Everyone in this town will know people who are affected by this, and most people will know many people. We have a lot of healing to do.”