Arnulfo Reyes, an elementary teacher in Uvalde, Texas, was watching a movie with his students. It was two days before their summer break. When the loud bangs erupted, some of the children asked: “What is going on?”
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Reyes replied. “But let’s go ahead and get under the table. Get under the table and act like you’re asleep.”
It was the training that teachers and students at Robb elementary school had been given, as recently as a few weeks earlier, in the case of an armed attack – and according to Reyes, it was worse than useless.
Feeling a presence behind him, he turned to see a man holding a rifle. The intruder shot Reyes twice, including once in the lung, dropping him to the ground. Then he sprayed bullets indiscriminately at the 10- and 11-year-old students in the classroom, as well as children in an adjacent room, while police waited in the hallway.
When the shooting stopped, 19 children – including 11 of Reyes’ students – were dead. So were two of his fellow teachers.
“I feel so bad for the parents [of the slain students] because they lost a child,” Reyes told ABC’s Good Morning America on Tuesday. “But they lost one child. I lost 11 that day, all at one time.”
His televised description of the mass killing at Robb elementary is one of the most harrowing first-hand accounts to emerge from the deadliest school shooting in the US since 26 were killed at Sandy Hook elementary in Connecticut in 2012.
Speaking from the bed of a hospital in San Antonio, where he has undergone five surgeries and had his blood replaced twice, Reyes added to a growing chorus of voices criticizing the police’s response in Uvalde that day, calling them “cowards”.
The school district police chief, Pete Arredondo, ordered more than a dozen of his officers to wait in a campus hallway as students and teachers trapped nearby begged 911 operators to save them from the intruder, who had shot his grandmother earlier that day.
Arredondo, who reportedly arrived at the scene without his police radio, mistakenly believed the intruder was merely hiding in a classroom rather than killing the people inside, state officials said. Arredondo held his officers back more than an hour until border patrol agents from a specialized tactical team breached the classroom and killed the gunman.
Following repeated mass killings nationwide, police have been trained to take down active shooters as quickly as possible, rather than cordon them off and wait for backup. Uvalde school district officers had received that training. Yet, on the day of the slayings at Robb elementary, Reyes said he got a tragically close look at how officers failed their training after an initial confrontation with the shooter.
“One of the students … was saying, ‘Officer, we’re in here, we’re in here,’” Reyes said. “But they had already left.”
Reyes said his students bravely carried out his instructions, even as the intruder directed his first volley of gunfire at them.
“I prayed that I wouldn’t hear none of my students talk, and I didn’t hear any talk for a while,” Reyes said. “But then, later on, he did shoot again. So, if he didn’t get them first time, he got them the second time.”
Reyes said he pretended to be unconscious after he was hit. It didn’t stop the gunman from shooting him a second time, “just to make sure that I was dead,” Reyes said.
Time passed incomprehensibly slowly after that, Reyes said, comparing his leaking blood to “an hourglass”. Eventually, he heard the tactical border patrol team gun down the intruder, and officers yelled: “Get up, get out!”
But, Reyes said, “I couldn’t get up.”
After he is released from the hospital, Reyes said he intends to advocate for measures restricting access to rifles like the one used at Robb.
He said the various drills and precautions that are meant to prepare students and teachers for active shooters – including the advice to stay motionless under desks, and the school district’s emergency alert program – failed utterly when a killer actually arrived.
“There was no announcement. I did not receive any messages on my phone,” Reyes said. “No training would ever prepare anybody for this. It all happened too fast.”
Neither school or police officials immediately responded to Reyes’ remarks. But, he said there is only one conclusion for him.
“We trained our kids to sit under the table,” Reyes said. “And [so] that’s what I thought of at the time. But we set them up to be like ducks.”