UVALDE, Texas (Reuters) -Frank Salazar pointed down the road at the low-slung buildings of Robb Elementary School, just two blocks from his home, struggling to make sense of the massacre that unfolded there less than 24 hours earlier, stunning his little Texas town.
Salazar, 18, a senior at Uvalde High School, went to Robb Elementary as a child, walking to school with his cousins. Like almost everyone else in the town of about 16,000, he knows somebody directly affected by the killing.
“This community is extremely tight, but there are many people who choose to mourn quietly, alone, and in a small town like this we’re going to respect that,” Salazar said.
Two friends had younger siblings who died, he said, speaking in a matter-of-fact tone, his eyes bloodshot and wide open.
Like many others in Uvalde, Salazar appeared dazed by what had just unfolded in his community – the murder of 19 children and two adults by an 18-year-old gunman armed with an AR-15 style rifle.
During the afternoon, a makeshift memorial of toys and flowers slowly grew outside Robb Elementary, now encircled with yellow crime-scene tape. Two women, barred from entering the grounds, handed a somber-looking officer a pair of giant teddy bears to place with the other offerings at the front of the school. One of the women was weeping.
A Wednesday morning mass at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church was attended by about 50 people, who listened as a priest struggled to tell them why so many of their town’s children had died. He said he was praying to the Lord to guide everyone in Uvalde to some understanding of why such killings took place.
The atmosphere in Uvalde, where large oaks throw shade over sometimes barely paved streets, was eerily subdued. At the grocery store, patrons quietly checked shopping lists and spoke to each other in hushed tones.
Large placards bearing photos of the high school’s valedictorian and other scholars line the lawn in front of city hall. Family names carved out of wood adorn many homes, and crosses are planted in yards, highlighting a strong Christian faith that runs deep in Uvalde.
At the local recreation center, four young women – recent Uvalde high school graduates – stood together talking. Three were waiting to give blood, and the other was working the drive and handing out pizza.
Reminiscing about growing up in Uvalde, they spoke with fondness about their old schools. At Robb Elementary, they said, students with birthdays would hear their names over the loudspeakers every day. They laughed but grew emotional as the happy memories mixed with the deep sense of loss that now seems to weigh on the town.
Residents were not the only ones seeking answers to explain the carnage. Scores of law enforcement officers from federal, state and local levels combed the working class neighborhood around the school, knocking on the doors of humble little ranch-style houses, many with chickens pecking freely in the yards.
Men wearing FBI jackets were seen huddling with residents, stepping into the shade of porches to ask questions.
Jorge Roque, who lives close to Robb Elementary, grimaced and choked back tears as he pushed his straw cowboy hat back on his head, trying to make sense of it all.
He said his two granddaughters survived the shooting at the school of second, third and fourth graders who typically range in age from 7 to 10. One of them is in 4th grade, the same year as the children who were killed, he said.
“Half of her class – it’s the one that got shot,” Roque said.
(Reporting by Brad Brooks; additional reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Ross Colvin, Grant McCool and Richard Pullin)