Angered but undeterred, border community found strength in wake of mass shooting

El Paso Strong

On eve of Aug. 3 anniversary El Pasoans recall horror of racially motivated attack, resiliency of survivors and neighbors

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — On Aug. 3, 2019, a North Texas man allegedly fed up with a “Hispanic invasion” of his state had driven 10 hours to El Paso to kill Mexicans.

Using an AK-47 style rifle, the man walked into the Walmart near Cielo Vista Mall around 10:30 a.m. and opened fire. Twenty-three people died and 23 others sustained injuries.

An El Paso police officer and DPS troopers took the man into custody a few minutes later without resistance. Patrick Wood Crusius, 22, remains jailed in El Paso awaiting trial on state and federal charges related to the mass shooting. He could be facing the death penalty if convicted.

The victims include a young couple who used their bodies as shields to protect their baby from the bullets, a girls’ soccer coach selling snacks outside the store, and a teacher from Juarez, Mexico, who had just been promoted to principal and was buying school supplies for her students.

The shooting shocked a community known as one of America’s safest cities, where residents take pride in hospitality and families often have members on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

But it didn’t crush it. What survivors, witnesses and community leaders remember most in the aftermath is the sympathy, solidarity and willingness to help on the part of others. The city coined a phrase that embodies the unity born out of tragedy: El Paso Strong.

On the eve of the one-year anniversary of the tragedy, several El Pasoans shared their memories of the event.

A mother rushes to her daughter’s rescue

Margarita Arvizu was at an East El Paso hospital where a relative had just passed away. At 10:25 a.m., she received a call from her daughter Daisy, asking her to pick her up after work. It was Daisy’s first day on the job at Walmart next to the mall.

“I had to silence my phone because we were in the hospital,” Arvizu said. A few minutes later, her son got a call. It was Daisy.

“She said, ‘they’re shooting at us.’ My son told her to run and seek shelter. He told her we were going to go get her,” the mom said.

Margarita Arvizu

Arvizu remembers trying to keep calm, imagining it was probably an argument between two people that just got out of control.

“But then we saw posts on social media of bodies and people injured. My daughter stopped answering the phone and we saw police cars, state troopers and a helicopter flying (over the Walmart),” she said. “We were really scared.”

The police had blocked off access to the Walmart and the mother and her son were forced to wait in anguish. Several minutes later, they got a call from Daisy, saying she and a coworker had gotten away and hitched a ride with someone out of the mall.

“She told us she (heard the shots) and thought someone had knocked down cans. But then she saw people at the front of the store running toward the back and she went out the back door,” Arvizu said. “I knew this has happened in other places but I never thought it would happen to my family.”

Arvizu blames the shooting on the illegal-immigration debate that’s taken center stage since the start of the 2016 presidential campaign.

“The rhetoric of the past four years against Latinos has been so harsh that some people really believe it and want to attack us,” she said. “Someone coming from so far away to kill Mexicans is unforgivable.”

‘You can’t be crying on the radio’

Melissa Gamez usually works the 2:30-11 p.m. shift at the 911 Police Dispatch Center in El Paso. On Aug. 3, she had requested overtime and had her headset on by 10:25 a.m.

“Got up, came in, clocked in, sat down,” the police dispatcher recalled. Then, at 10:36 a.m., the telephones started ringing off the hook.

“When something bad is going, something like a shooting or anything like that, a major incident, the calls keep going,” she said. “We all looked around and kept hearing ‘Walmart’ … at that point, we didn’t know what it was, but we knew it was something (big).”

The dispatchers found themselves diverting police cars from all over the city to the Walmart near Cielo Vista Mall. As requests for more officers multiplied and the muted television stations at the center showed national breaking news from El Paso, there was a growing sense of disbelief.

“It was very surreal seeing El Paso up on the screens,” Gamez said. “At that point they had said eight to 11 victims. And we looked at each other like, ‘OK, they’re still alive, they’re still good.'”

Melissa Gamez

But then one of the dispatchers in the back of the room said “they’re confirmed.” referring to fatalities at the scene.

“At that point, we just looked at each other and turned around and went into our modes, because we have to go into our modes,” Gamez said. She was referring to the dispatchers’ training of keeping emotions in check and remaining professional during the calls.

But on Aug. 3, 2019, doing that was very difficult.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time, 24 years, and that’s the only way you can get through without breaking down,” Gamez said. “You just turn around and put tunnel-vision on and focus on what you have because I still had calls for service that needed to be dispatched. You can’t be crying on the radio.”

It wasn’t only the dispatchers who were shaken by the scope of the tragedy. The police officers responding to the calls were anxious as well. “Everybody was just nervous. […] You can tell when someone’s voice is cracking or you’re in disbelief. It just got real. That’s how it was,” Gamez said.

Walmart manager caught in nightmare scenario

What if you’re in charge of a business where thousands of people come in and out all day and suddenly a gunman walks in and starts shooting?

That’s the nightmare scenario that Robert A. Evans had to face last Aug. 3.

“I’ve worked for Walmart 22 years and you come in to work on a Saturday or a Monday or a Tuesday and you don’t wake up expecting something like this to interrupt your day,” said the manager of the Walmart next to Cielo Vista Mall.

Evans was checking his emails outside the store during a break when the shooting started. “I heard a loud shot similar to the backfire of a car on Interstate 10. It happens but it was a little louder than that,” he said.

The manager walked back to the building and saw the shooter. “I entered back into the store, making announcements, yelling over my radio system […] to notify my associates on what actions to take, yelling and telling everyone to get to the back of the building knowing that the shooter was entering up to the front,” he said.

He said people got out through the back of the building while shots continued to pop. “Once we got out through the back, contacted 911 getting first responders here and law enforcement. All that was going on,” Evans said.

He saw gunshot victims fallen by the automotive area and elsewhere in the store. “We had a husband and wife in their vehicle by the garden center. They had wounds as well,” the manager said.

Evans said he felt fear but most of all an urge to get people out of the store as soon as possible. “Associates were on the phone, customers were on the phone trying to get everybody out here. Around the building individuals had been shot, customers had been shot, that’s what was going on,” he said.

An army of police officers arrived at the store. The shooter was apprehended and that cleared the way for first responders to take over and render aid to the victims.

Robert Evans, manager of the Walmart near Cielo Vista Mall, stands next to a memorial to the victims of the Aug. 3 mass shooting, which is located at the south end of the store’s parking lot. (Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

Counseling was made available to employees who were reassigned to other Walmarts. The store near Cielo Vista mall closed, was remodeled and prepared to reopen months later.

Evans said associates were eased back to their old jobs. They were invited to see the new store before returning to their posts.

“Things have gotten somewhat back to normal operationally. But it’s something you’ll never forget. I doubt anyone working that day or shopping that day is ever going to forget. It’s something that’s going to stay in your mind,” he said. “But I can see that our community has become El Paso Strong based on the support and the unity.”

The company built a memorial called Grand Candela in the south side of the store’s parking lot. It’s a small plaza with a plaque and a tower-like structure that can be lit up at night. Survivors and families of the victims have been invited to a remembrance ceremony there Monday morning.

Evans said his family has been his emotional pillar to overcome the horror. And he hesitates when asked about his feelings towards the shooter.

“It makes you look at life in a different way. You look at the things you take for granted day in and day out […] It kind of opens your eyes to the small things (in life),” he said.

‘This tragedy does not define us’

El Paso Mayor Dee Margo was in Austin as people were being felled by the gunman at the Walmart.

“I got the call and it wasn’t really clear what was going on. It was the proverbial ‘fog of war,'” he said. “But it got worse as time went on. I knew I had to get back.”

He hitched a ride in a friend’s private airplane and within hours was in his city receiving briefings and internalizing the scope of the tragedy.

“One of the toughest things was going to McArthur Middle School, where the families were waiting on confirmation” regarding the fate of their loved ones caught up in the shooting, Margo said.

The emotional toll increased when he visited a hospital were some of the injured were taken. “We were with the 10-month-old little boy whose parents perished protecting him. At that time (the grandparents) only knew about his mother. While I’m standing there with both sets of grandparents, the father of the husband gets word to go to McArthur,” Margo recalled.

But amid the grief, the mayor saw signs of hope, resiliency and solidarity within his community.

El Paso Mayor Dee Margo reflects on the Aug. 3 massacre. (photo by Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

“We saw people standing in the sun for hours waiting to give blood. I understand some stood in line for 11 hours,” he said. “And after everyone gave blood you hear a cheer and you know that’s what we’re all about. That’s our community. That’s the most defining moment I can talk about. […] That’s what makes us special.”

Margo said he took the attack “very personally” because his city is 84% Hispanic and has stood here since a century before the United States became a country.

“This tragedy and the immigration crisis gave us an opportunity to explain to people who we are and what makes us special and unique. If there was anything positive that came out of that tragedy is that people started to understand what we’re all about as a community and as a region,” he said.

Margo emphasized that the tragedy “does not define us” and that El Pasoans will go on with their lives. But he acknowledged that wounds are likely to reopen once the suspected mass murderer goes to trial.

“I want that individual prosecuted to the full extent available,” the mayor said, using the phrase “evil racist” at one point during the interview. “We’ll get that behind us and we can move on. (But) we’re going to have some wounds reopening during that time.”

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