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Funerals for the victims of the Uvalde elementary school shooting began in the small Texas town on Tuesday.
In the afternoon, hundreds of mourners turned out for the funeral mass for Amerie Jo Garza, a smiling fourth-grader who was killed a week ago after an 18-year-old gunman who was eventually killed by law enforcement officials murdered 19 children and two teachers at Robb elementary school.
Nineteen more funerals are planned for the next two and a half weeks. On Monday and Tuesday, visitations were held for two victims. Amerie Jo Garza and Maite Rodriguez, whose funeral was on Tuesday evening, were both 10 years old. Visitations for one of the teachers, 48-year-old Irma Garcia, and for two more children, Nevaeh Bravo and Jose Flores Jr, were also held on Tuesday.
At the afternoon funeral for Amerie Sacred Heart Catholic church turned away several mourners after reaching capacity. Hundreds were inside. Six pallbearers wearing white shirts and gloves carried a small casket.
Amerie loved purple. At her funeral, Erika Santiago, her husband and their two children wore purple shirts adorned with images of victims. Santiago described Amerie as “a nice little girl who smiled a lot … so humble and charismatic but full of life”.
Santiago told the Associated Press her 10-year-old son, Adriel, was friends with Amerie and Maite.
“It affected him so much,” she said. “He told me he did not want to go to school, fearing that could happen. He told me, ‘Mom, I just don’t feel safe.’”
Amerie had been given a cellphone for her birthday. A friend told Amerie’s father she tried to use the phone to call police during the shooting.
The police response is under intense security. Officers did not confront the gunman for more than an hour before he was killed by border patrol agents.
Officials have said students and teachers begged 911 operators for help as the Uvalde school district police chief, Pete Arredondo, told more than a dozen officers to wait in a hallway. Officials said Arredondo believed the suspect was barricaded in an adjoining classroom and was no longer actively attacking students or teachers.
On Friday, the head of the Texas department of public safety, Steven McCraw, told reporters: “It was the wrong decision.” The commander, he said, thought “there were no children at risk. Obviously … there were children in that classroom at risk.”
The federal Department of Justice has announced an investigation into the police’s response.
Arredondo was scheduled to be sworn onto the city council on Tuesday. The Uvalde mayor, Don McLaughlin, said the ceremony would no longer take place. It was not clear when or if it would happen.
On Monday, many in Uvalde attended both visitations. Maite’s family wore tie-dye shirts, showing her with the wings of an angel. The shirts were green: Maite’s favourite colour.
A cousin, Destiny Esquivel, told CNN Maite “loved animals. She was determined. She was smart. She was going to be someone”. Esquivel also said classmates said Maite “was brave” during the shooting.
“Grabbing all of the other students, telling them where to hide. She is a hero,” Esquivel said.
The visitation for Amerie was at the Hillcrest Memorial Funeral Home, just across the road from the elementary school. On the day of the shooting, after the gunman wrecked his truck, two men at the funeral home ran towards the scene. The gunman fired. Neither man was wounded.
Uvalde has about 15,000 residents and two funeral homes. Funeral directors, embalmers and others from across Texas offered help. Morticians were helping with facial reconstructions needed because of the damage caused by the killer’s military-style rifle. A town florist told NPR florists from other towns also offered help.
“Most arrangements take a good 30 to 45 minutes apiece to make,” Kelly Baker said. “We are making thousands.”
Suppliers had given flowers free of charge, Baker said, adding: “We’re very lucky that we have not wanted for a colour or a style of flower.”
Veronica Berger, a florist from LaCoste, an hour away, said: “Florists are the only ones who know how to get through this. It is very hard work but it’s very fulfilling. When this tragedy happened, we knew exactly what we needed to be doing.”
According to the school district website, the Uvalde high school graduation was postponed out of respect for the victims of the shooting. Amid continuing national media interest, Rushing-Estes-Knowles Mortuary – the second funeral home in the town, site of the funeral for Maite Rodriguez – requested “no reporters or photographers on property grounds”.
The Texas Tribune reported from a memorial to the victims: 21 white wooden crosses in the centre of Uvalde, near the courthouse, city hall and post office.
“The crosses are a few feet tall,” the paper said. “They face out in four directions from the pool and fountain in [the] town square. Bouquets are piled high at the foot of each.
“‘Good times playing baseball with you,’ one note in a child’s handwriting said on 10-year-old Jose Flores’s cross. A baseball was perched on its left branch. A snack bag of Flipz white fudge-covered pretzels sat on top.
“Blue hearts in the middle of each cross … contain messages from dozens of loved ones. ‘In our last time together we were happy’ said a note to 11-year-old Maranda Mathis.”
There is one Catholic church in Uvalde. The funerals will stretch into next week, the last scheduled for 16 June.
“Everyone here knows someone who was killed,” church priest Eduardo Morales told the Washington Post. “There’s going to be a lot of tears and a lot of sadness … but as we continue to celebrate their lives, they will turn into tears of joy.”
Eliahna “Ellie” Garcia is due to be buried on Monday 6 June, one day after what would have been her 10th birthday. Her family had been preparing a party. She had been hoping to receive gifts related to the Disney movie Encanto.
“She loved that movie and talked a lot about it,” her aunt, Siria Arizmendi, told the AP. “It is just sad for all the children.”