19 dead school children, and a brave girl who feels guilty

Our New York office has televisions showing the major news channels: CNN, CBS, Fox News. It’s the end of May and I’m editing with our cameraman David. It’s been in the picture for a while: shooting in Uvalde, Texas. I’ve only been a reporter in the US for 9 months, but I already know that a shooting isn’t immediately big news here. Then a news flash in the picture: 19 children died. A primary school has been shot at.

My stomach turns, but my hand grabs the phone. Call Hilversum, order tickets, get there as soon as possible. Less than 24 hours later, we arrive at the primary school in Uvalde: here an 18-year-old gunman shot children of around 10 and two teachers in their classroom. The weapon: a semi-automatic rifle. Uvalde is a small town of about 30,000 people in South Texas. But when we get there, the city will be the center of the United States for a while.

All the major media outlets are here: CNN and CBS have huge tents in front of the school, complete with lamps as mobile studios. The story goes that ABC rents the front yard to the neighbors across the street. There are no more available hotel rooms in the whole city, we were just “lucky”. The coffee shops are swarming with journalists, phones are ringing everywhere, cameras are rolling, live footage is being recorded.

Media circus

I will never forget the watch that night. Finally a moment of silence in the middle of the media circus. School children, parents and politicians gather at the local racecourse to remember the victims. Someone plays the violin, I look around and only then does it dawn on me: We are in the middle of the families who only lost their child a day ago.

Yesterday it was all families at the breakfast tables, now the family tot is standing here with a photo of a child in his hands. Immediately after the vigil, journalists turned to the families again. I feel conflicted: I want to tell the story of these people, I also want to leave them alone with their grief.

It’s a bizarre thought: since the Uvalde shooting, there have been dozens of other shootings in the United States. It is news, but after a few days at most the media circus has passed and society is left with the grief. There have been more than 600 shootings this year in which at least four people have been killed. This means that 2022 is on track to match the record year of 2021. Uvalde is the story of so many Americans. Together with cameraman David and correspondent Erik, we recently decided to return to Uvalde six months after the filming. How is the city doing now that the rolling cameras are gone? What about those who have to carry on without their loved ones? Back in Uvalde, we drive directly to the primary school. The journalists have made room for 21 crosses, which are stuffed animals, flowers and notes. It hits me harder this time, perhaps because the adrenaline from the massive coverage has given way to silence.

We interview 11-year-old Khloie and her parents. Khloie was in the classroom when the gunman broke in. She herself was only hit by shrapnel, but she saw everything that happened that day and called 911 several times from the classroom. I gently ask her how it’s going. Khloie says, “There are days when I feel guilty, but I tell myself it’s not my fault.”

I have to swallow, she sounds so mature. Khloie talks about how she misses her best friend Amerie Jo, who was killed in the shooting. How she can’t sleep because she’s afraid of nightmares. How she always watches the door for fear of another gunman entering. A terrifying fear for an 11-year-old girl. Then she starts sliding impatiently in the chair and doing TikTok dances. Oddly enough, the dance steps calm me down a bit, luckily she’s also a child. The story of Uvalde, and Khloie in particular, will always stay with me as a journalist and as a person.

Leave a Comment