SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Hartford mom Cecilia Ortiz was at home on Tuesday caring for her three young boys when she heard about the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. At first, she didn’t think much of it because she sees school shootings as common occurrences in America.
“As tragic as it is, it happens a lot and you just start to become numb to it,” Ortiz said.
It wasn’t until her sister informed her that her young cousin, Madison, attended Robb Elementary in Uvalde that the shooting hit home for Ortiz.
Ortiz grew up in South Dakota but her family is from Texas. Many of her aunts and cousins still live in Uvalde and Carrizo Springs, which is just south of where the shooting happened.
“We definitely have ties to that small town,” Ortiz said. “And us being here in South Dakota, it feels like nothing will ever happen to us or we’ll never know anyone that it’s happened to, or it will happen to. And so, this time now that it is in a place somewhat familiar and it happened to someone I know, I feel like we’re no longer safe.”
Immediately after hearing that her cousin was in the school during the shooting, Ortiz reached out to her aunt, Priscilla Rubio.
Not long before the shooting began, Rubio was in Robb Elementary with her husband and brother celebrating her daughter’s grades and Good Citizen award at an end-of-year ceremony.
“It was supposed to be a happy day,” Rubio told KELOLAND News just days after the shooting.
“My daughter had awards that day at ten o’ clock and we went to her awards at her school,” Rubio said. “So, I saw the teachers that passed away. I saw the students that passed away. I saw them get their awards.”
After the ceremony finished, Rubio and her husband left the school to go back home. Rubio was planning to buy flowers and a sweet treat for her daughter to celebrate her hard work. She had thought about taking her home after the awards but decided to leave her at the school to enjoy her last day with her friends and cousins.
It was a decision she would feel guilty over an hour later when the school called and informed her they were under an active shooter lockdown.
At first, Rubio wasn’t too concerned because it wasn’t clear that the active shooter was on the school’s campus. But when a second call came in saying that the shooter was still in the school, she and her husband immediately returned to the school grounds.
Outside of the school, Rubio and her husband waited to hear news of their daughter and nephew.
Around 12 p.m., Rubio received a text from an unknown number informing her that her daughter was safe at a funeral home across the street. Despite their efforts, the parents weren’t allowed into the funeral home to check on their daughter.
Once she confirmed her daughter was safe, Rubio’s concern turned toward her nephew. Both children were in the fourth grade but while Madison was able to escape out of a window, Samuel was trapped in his classroom with the shooter.
Rubio and her husband went back to the school with other parents waiting to hear about whether their children were safe. Rubio described a scene full of local police, state officers, border patrol and SWAT surrounding the school, but nobody entered. Rubio’s husband said he overheard some parents discussing going into the school themselves to get their children out.
“I felt so helpless,” Rubio said.
The Associated Press has reported parents outside the school were frustrated with the response from law enforcement who they urged to enter the building. According to the report, the gunman was alone in the school for 40 minutes to an hour before being killed by a U.S. Border Patrol team.
After several hours of waiting, Rubio was finally reunited with her daughter while her nephew was taken to the Emergency Room at the hospital to be treated for bullet wounds.
“The moment I saw her she just started crying,” Rubio said. “She said, ‘I’m so glad I had my stuffed animal with me because I just held it tight, and I was praying in the classroom.’”
In addition to bruises from crawling out of the window of her classroom, Madison has been emotionally shaken by Tuesday’s shooting, according to her mother who says she keeps asking, ‘Why did it have to happen?’
After being reunited with her daughter at the Civic Center, Rubio learned that her nephew, Samuel, had hidden under a table in the classroom while the shooter killed his classmates. A tablecloth was all that stood between him and Salvador Ramos.
“The thing is, they didn’t make a noise and there was, like, a tablecloth over it so he couldn’t see them so that’s the only reason my nephew and the other little boy survived,” Rubio said.
Rubio’s nephew is now recovering on crutches while his bullet wounds heal.
“He experienced a lot of trauma seeing all of that, hearing everything and he kind of says bits and pieces of what happened but he really doesn’t want to talk about that right now,” Rubio explained.
The possibility of a shooting was the last thing on Rubio’s mind on Tuesday because she thinks of school as a place where her daughter is safe and happy and with her friends. On that day in particular, she was filled with pride and joy over her grades and being honored with an award.
“Nobody wants to think anything bad is going to happen to your child, especially at school,” Rubio said.
Here in South Dakota, Ortiz has been in touch with her family in Texas as they recover from the tragedy. As a mother herself, she’s been thinking a lot about her children’s safety when they are eventually old enough to attend school, even considering home school or virtual schooling options.
“I feel like with time it’s just going to get closer and closer to us until eventually something happens here to us to, unfortunately,” Ortiz said.
For Rubio, she and her family are moving forward and supporting each other in the aftermath. A GoFundMe has been set up for Samuel’s medical expenses and recovery as well.
“I’m just hoping our community comes together and makes changes in our schools to make our children feel more safe,” Rubio said.