The head of the Texas department of public safety admitted on Friday afternoon that “of course it was the wrong decision” for armed police to wait for an extended period outside the classroom where the gunman in Tuesday’s school shooting was killing children and teachers, without storming in.
Police’s updated timeline suggests that roughly 78 minutes passed from the time that the gunman entered the building to when officers finally entered the classroom where he was located. Meanwhile, students trapped inside a classroom with the gunman repeatedly called 911, including one who pleaded, “Please send the police now” as officers waited in the hallway for more than 45 minutes.
Steven McCraw, department of public safety director, shed tears and said at a tense press conference in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 young children and two teachers were gunned down by a local 18-year-old that “there’s no excuse” for the failure of trained personnel not to have intervened sooner.
At least 17 others were wounded and the victims were all inside one classroom.
At a separate news conference, Texas’s governor, Greg Abbott, showed no sympathy for the controversy facing law enforcement in Uvalde, saying that local police officials had initially “misled” him about the speed and resolve of officers’ response to the mass killing at Robb elementary on Tuesday.
“I am livid,” Abbott said. “My expectation is that the law enforcement leaders … leading the investigation … get to the bottom of every fact with absolute certainty.
“The families whose lives have been destroyed … need answers that are accurate.”
Uvalde’s mayor, Don McLaughlin, also claimed to be confused about Friday’s revelations about the police response. And, without elaborating, he said his staff would make any “change” needed if deemed necessary after an investigation into the response.
The gunman, who had recently turned 18, came heavily armed to Robb elementary school in the small town on Tuesday and killed 21 people, after shooting and wounding his grandmother earlier.
He was ultimately shot dead at the school by a federal agent.
The attacker entered through a door that was meant to be locked but had been propped open, and after arriving in response to frantic calls from teachers trapped inside the school with the gunman barricaded in a classroom, armed law enforcement officers waited outside the door for about an hour while the killing continued.
A specialist Swat team, for which the officers had apparently been waiting, eventually breached the classroom and shot the killer dead.
After several days of stonewalling and contradictory responses by other officials, McCraw led the press conference on Friday and cited the person in charge of the special police department assigned to the school, without naming the person, who on the day had led the response and held the officers back.
“It was the wrong decision,” McCraw conceded.
“The on-scene commander at the time believed it had transitioned from an active shooter [situation] to a barricaded subject,” he said, adding the commander thought that at that point there remained “no children at risk”.
“Obviously, based upon the information we [now] have, there were children in that classroom at risk,” he said.
He choked up as he was asked about the apparent tragic error, when people had continued to call the 911 emergency service number throughout the hiatus and tell them there were children needing rescue and frantic parents outside the school were pleading with other officers there to move in and end the massacre.
Asked about a “40-minute gap” in which 911 operators were aware children were alive, but officers still did not go in, he added: “The decision as made that this was a barricaded subject, there was time to retrieve the keys [to the classroom] and wait for a tactical team … that was the decision, that was the thought process.
“With the benefit of hindsight, of course it was not the right decision, it was the wrong decision. Period. There’s no excuse for that,” he said.
The first officers on the scene were from the Uvalde city police, which has some Swat capability and about 40 officers. But command of the incident was taken by Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District police department, a separate division that has six officers and oversees security for eight local schools, the Washington Post reported.
The chief of that department is Pedro Arradondo, whom McCraw did not name during the press conference on Friday, but alluded to as the incident commander.
Three weeks ago he was elected to join the Uvalde city council, according to NBC News.
He has not yet responded to media inquiries for comment.
McCraw recounted some of the 911 calls, including several from a female who, in a whisper, reported “multiple dead” in a classroom. The unnamed caller, from inside the classroom, said there were eight to nine students still alive at that stage.
At 12.36pm local time, a 911 call that lasted for 21 seconds was received, from a child in the classroom, who was told to stay on the line and stay quiet.
The child, McCraw recounted, said: “Please send the police now.”
Victor Escalon, the south Texas regional director of the state’s department of public safety, said on Thursday armed officers arrived at Robb elementary in about four minutes, yet it was “approximately an hour later” that a tactical team of US border patrol arrived at the school, burst into the classroom and killed the gunman, while the other armed police waited outside.
On 14 March, the gunman made an Instagram post saying “10 more days”, the director said, to which a respondent asked: “Are you going to shoot up a school.”
“Stop asking dumb questions and you’ll see,” he allegedly replied.