By JAY REEVES
UVALDE, Texas (AP) — Gilbert Limones and a colleague at a funeral home were two of the first targets of the gunman who killed 19 children and two teachers at a Texas elementary school, and Limones has spent most of his days since helping in preparing the funerals of the young victims and comforting broken families.
On Sunday, Limones traded his funeral director role for that of a preacher trying to comfort a community and explain an abomination that defies easy answers. He is also the pastor of Casa El Shaddai, a small church less than a mile from where the massacre took place.
“When tragedies occur, the enemy only needs a willing vessel,” Limones told his congregation of about 35, who met for the first time in an old restaurant converted into a prayer room.
Although Limones suffered no physical injuries, he said he is exhausted and full of guilt that there was nothing he could do to stop the bloodshed. He has spent hours in tears or prayers, sometimes both at the same time.
Still, Limones tried to find the words to calm his part of a heavily Hispanic city of 16,000, which is sad, confused and raw with emotion nearly two weeks after the massacre. Satan brought confusion and pain, he said, but the believers have a defense.
“Church, you are armed with this,” he said, holding up a Bible. It was Limones’ first sermon since the assassination; he was too busy with funeral home work last week to serve.
Limones, who preaches in both Spanish and English, has salt and pepper hair and a big smile in happy times. He was animated for the congregation, which meets just one right turn and another road from Robb Elementary School and Hillcrest Memorial Funeral Home. The two sit on opposite sides of Geraldine Street, near where 18-year-old Salvador Ramos shot and wounded his grandmother in the face before the school attack.
On the morning of May 24, Limones and Cody Briseno, another funeral director in Hillcrest, heard of a car accident. A gray Ford pickup had come to a stop in a concrete ditch behind the school and opposite the funeral home, and they soon spotted a man dressed in black next to the passenger door, according to a search warrant.
According to authorities, Limones and Briseno walked up to the man, but backed off when they realized he was putting a magazine in a gun. A gunman identified as Ramos fired several times at them.
Limones said he remembers hearing someone yell about a weapon and then turn around, only to hear the “bang, bang, bang” of gunshots behind him. The gunman was within about 150 feet of him, but somehow missed, Limones said.
Limones said he got away as quickly as possible, cringed at every shot, and called the police as soon as he could. “I yelled, yelled to 911,” he said.
But Ramos pointed the gun at the outside of the school and entered the building through a door that authorities say didn’t lock when a teacher pulled it shut. “I’ve seen it all,” said Limones.
Inside, 19 fourth-graders were fatally injured, along with two teachers, as police waited along the corridors for more than an hour to confront and kill Ramos. While nagging questions remain about the police’s response and what exactly happened inside the school, the victims’ funerals began last week, with Hillcrest leading five of them.
So, despite his touch with the killer, Limones went back to his job at the family-owned funeral home, which is small and quickly overwhelmed. It made a plea for donations, including tissues and cleaning supplies, and got help from undertakers from outside Uvalde.
Jason Horn, a volunteer undertaker from Longview, Texas, described working shifts with others in Hillcrest to prepare the young victims for burial.
“We had five cases that were extremely difficult cases, and all five families were able to see their babies, and they all decided to continue with open caskets,” he said in a video about the effort. Compiling obituaries took time: most of the three pages in Thursday’s Uvalde Leader-News were written and photographs of the dead.
Robb Elementary’s most fortunate victims are recovering. School teacher Arnulfo Reyes, who was hospitalized with gunshot wounds, posted a public message on social media last week thanking friends for their prayers and love.
“I have a long journey ahead of me, but I know I will get through it. My thoughts and prayers are with the families who continue to grieve their loved ones,” said Reyes, who runs a small factory and gift shop when not teaching.
Others deal with a mix of emotions. After a Friday night school board meeting, Angela Turner, the aunt of the shooting incident Maranda Mathis, shook with anger as she spoke of the effect the shooting had on her family.
“I have a fourth-grader who was terrified in the next room. My niece has passed away. I have a 6 year old who just told me, ‘I don’t want to go to school. Why, to be shot?’ I have one going to high school. I have a third grader,” Turner said. “We want answers to where the security will take place. This was all a joke. I am so disappointed in our school district.”
Another mom, Dawn Poitevent, said her 7-year-old son, who was due to attend Robb Elementary next year, now fears school and wants to stay on his current campus.
“What he knows now is that when he goes to another school, he will be shot by a bad man,” she said.
It’s unclear where Poitevent’s son will end up, but it won’t be with Robb, who Chief Inspector Hal Harrell has said won’t reopen.
In his sermon, Limones said he believes the victims are in a better place, and he talked about the hundreds of people who have come to the city with donations of food, water, prayers and more. Uvalde, he said, “is surrounded by love.”
While the townspeople are currently in great pain and searching for answers, he said, they need to come together. God’s justice will ultimately triumph.
“Don’t you think the shooter should talk to our father about what he did?” said Limones.
More on the Uvalde, Texas school shooting: https://apnews.com/hub/uvalde-school-shooting