I spent a year covering the Uvalde shooting. Here's what I learned: Reporter's notebook

Getting to know the families of the victims proved to be a monumental task.

May 24, 2023, 6:04 AM

The flight to Uvalde was rough. A storm passed through Texas and there were many cancellations. My flight to San Antonio was then rerouted to Houston, where I rented a car and drove the five hours to my destination.

I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived on the morning of May 25, 2022. I’ve covered so many school shootings over the past decade, including in Newtown, Connecticut; Parkland, Florida; Santa Fe, Texas and others, I wasn’t prepared for what was ahead of me. I'd never even heard of the small town of Uvalde. I only knew it was an hour and a half from San Antonio.

When I pulled into town, I stopped for coffee after a long night of travel. A lot of reporters from around the country were starting to arrive and I immediately knew this wasn’t going to be easy. The town was in shock and the flood of reporters coming in was only going to make learning who the victims of the tragedy were more difficult.

The streets around Robb Elementary were lined with media and emergency response teams. Many families had only learned that their loved ones were killed or injured late the previous evening.

Parents of 9-year-old Jackie Cazares visit a memorial set up in Uvalde's town square after she was killed at Robb Elementary.
Ismael Estrada/ABC News

At first, I was able to do the initial reporting of the tragedy the way I had covered other school shootings. There were press conferences and some families of the victims made themselves available for interviews in the days after the shooting, but soon things would change.

Cindy Galli, the executive producer for ABC News' investigative unit, called me to ask If I’d be willing to stay in town for a year. I knew the answer had to be yes, but I wasn’t fully aware what would mean. I only knew that there was more to learn and tell about the victims of this senseless shooting.

Getting to know the families of the victims proved to be a monumental task. As the days moved forward, we learned of the failed response from law enforcement on top of new details about the shooter and his history.

It was a challenge because Uvalde is a very small town. It’s the kind of town where people know everything about everyone. People either knew the families of the victims or law enforcement or both. It started to become more difficult to get people to meet with me. There was a distrust of the media and everyone was still trying to process what had just happened.

As days turned to weeks, I kept hitting the same roadblocks. People became less interested in speaking to the media.

We stayed away from the funerals and the cemetery out of respect to the families while their loved ones were laid to rest. The town square that was filled with flowers, balloons and teddy bears was starting to show the effects of the heat and sun. Many journalists were leaving town, but I was still trying to get to know the families and learn more about the children who died.

On June 16, after all the funerals were done, I got up early and drove to the cemetery. I got out of my car and was overwhelmed with what was in front of me. There were so many fresh graves, surrounded by flowers and stuffed toys. That was the moment I knew I had to stay. I knew I wanted to learn more. I needed to put a face to the names of the victims here.

Javier and Gloria Cazares scroll through video recorded of their late daughter, Jackie Cazares.
Ismael Estrada/ABC News

I was standing in front of Jackie Cazares’ grave. Jackie was a 9-year-old victim in room 111. Her grave was covered in painted rocks and flowers and trinkets of the Eiffel tower.

I called her father after finding his phone number on a business card he posted on his Facebook page. He answered and we spoke at length about his daughter. He told me he made a promise after she passed that he would work tirelessly to fight for her.

Her parents would later tell me she was obsessed with the city of Paris and the way the city looked in the evening. She decorated her room in lights with a Paris theme. It was her dream to visit the city of lights when she graduated high school.

Mothers who lost their daughters at Robb Elementary join Gloria Cazares in front of Jackie Cazares' mural with the Eiffel Tower.
Ismael Estrada/ABC News

In the coming days and weeks, I spent more time with the Cazares family. Jackie’s mother Gloria invited me to meet more families at a barbecue in Austin, Texas, after they gathered at the state capitol to demand answers from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott about what they called a lack of transparency coming from government officials in the wake of the shooting.

I didn’t know what to expect from that meeting, but when I walked in the door, I knew I was exactly where I needed to be. I spent many hours introducing myself and mostly listening to Javier’s extended family. I spoke to at least 5 other families including Jerry and Veronica Mata who lost their daughter Tess in room 112. I told them I wanted to learn more about their children, and over the course of the year would work to tell their stories and let the world know who was lost here.

From that point forward, I would meet with many of the families to capture their daily lives as they tried to get through the year without their children.

Jerry and Veronica Mata are forced to celebrate their daughter's 11th birthday at the town cemetery after Tess Mata was killed at Robb Elementary.
Ismael Estrada/ABC News

I wanted to get to know them without the cameras around. I talked with them over dinners, family gatherings. I began to understand what a tragic loss like this does to families and everyday life. They started to trust me to tell their stories. We were able to learn more about how the families were fighting for justice and accountability. I also started to see how some of the families started to bond. It became a big part of our coverage over the course of the year.

In spending so much time with the families, I understand more clearly things that I only thought I knew in covering other shootings. There are little things that can turn their days upside down. A smell, a memory, or a song. They can go from laughter to tears in an instant.

I also learned that very few people can offer them comfort. They say that family and loved ones don’t completely grasp what they feel.

They say the bond they’ve formed with other families of this tragedy is paramount in getting through each day. They say they are the only ones who completely understand, and they rely on and look out for each other.

I witnessed a pain that I didn’t fully understand until I witnessed it firsthand.