EL PASO — Ray Garcia was on the phone with his wife while driving to a sporting goods store Saturday morning when he saw four cop cars blaze by with lights flashing and sirens blaring.
Something is happening, he told his wife, April Telles-Garcia. He hung up. Another call came in. It was Jimmy Villatoro, whose son plays baseball in the local X Squad baseball league with Garcia’s son.
“Ray, Ray, Ray — Maribel’s been shot,” Villatoro said. Maribel Saenzpardo’s husband Danny, who was working out of town, had called Villatoro for help. Danny needed Villatoro to make sure his kids were safe.
Villatoro and Garcia both quickly headed to the Walmart, where Saenzpardo and two other friends —Memo Garcia and Jessica Coca Garcia — that morning had set up a stand to sell limonadas and agua orchata drinks to raise money for their daughters’ upcoming soccer season.
The two men were close enough to the Walmart to quickly step into the aftermath of one of the deadliest mass shootings in the state’s history. There, they tried to save the lives of friends cut down by gunfire and usher their kids to safety.
“I don’t know why God put them there, but he did,” Telles-Garcia said.
The Telles-Garcia account is just one of several harrowing stories emerging from the chilling massacre. Their friends are slowly recuperating, as is the city. The gunman opened fire outside and inside the packed store at 10:39 a.m. Saturday, killing at least 20 people and wounding 26 others, according to the latest number from law enforcement officials on Sunday. Authorities said the suspect is a 21-year-old man from Allen who wrote in an online rant that he wanted to stop “the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
That Walmart is off of Interstate 10 in El Paso near Cielo Vista Mall, a bustling shopping area where thousands of people from both sides of the border shop on weekends. Ahead of the school year, border residents cross over to purchase new clothes and supplies for their children.
And it’s a popular spot for sports teams, too. On weekends, those teams frequently fundraise in front of the Walmart to help supplement the costs of equipment and travel.
The girls soccer team that set up Saturday was part of the Paso Del Norte Soccer Association League, which competes in regional cities in New Mexico, Texas and Mexico. Several of the girls have brothers who play with X Squad Baseball.
“The league is made up of good people, coaches, players. This is just so tragic,” said Francoise Feliberti, administrator of the league.
Feliberti said many of the girls were looking forward to their upcoming games, inspired by the the U.S. women’s soccer team’s World Cup championship.
The excitement for the season turned into chaos as the gunman began his rampage.
But most EP Fusion players had not arrived to the front entrance just before Saturday’s shooting — and that may have saved their lives, Feliberti said.
When Ray Garcia and Villatoro arrived and met up at the Walmart, police told them to stay back because the scene was still active. But the two men insisted. Ray told police he was looking for his “kids” — the ones they had spent nearly every summer weekend with as a sports family.
Ray Garcia and Villatoro said they felt no fear going toward the store.
“We didn’t even think twice,” Villatoro said.
When they approached the Walmart entrance, they saw bodies and blood on the pavement. Some of them were their friends, under the canopy set up for their fundraiser.
Ray Garcia went to help the parents who were injured. Villatoro looked for the children.
Within minutes, he found five of them hiding behind a car in the parking lot.
“They recognized me right away,” Villatoro said. “I guess from all the school training they get– they knew to hide.”
Meanwhile, Ray Garcia tried to keep Memo Garcia, his son’s coach, awake and conscious. Ray Garcia said Memo Garcia was badly wounded. An unknown woman who said she was a nurse came to help Ray Garcia and put pressure on Memo Garcia’s wounds.
“I wish I knew who she was,” Garcia said. “I told [Memo] we found the kids and got them away.”
Garcia followed Memo Garcia to the hospital, where he met with his wife.
Memo Garcia remained in critical condition as of Sunday afternoon, they said. Jessica Coca Garcia and Saenzpardo are in stable condition.
“Their life revolves around their kids. They are so dedicated to their kids. They are so dedicated to their teams,” Telles-Garcia said.
After spending hours at the hospital, they went home late Saturday night. Villatoro said when he saw his father, the two began to cry.
“He’s not really the emotional type but he hugged me right away. I saw my wife and my son. I was just happy to be home,” Villatoro said.
Telles-Garcia said she and Ray had spent hours at the hospital, still shocked by the chaos of the shooting.
When they turned on the television on Sunday there was another headline of a mass shooting in Ohio. Another tragedy to process as they make sense of the one that hit home.
“Look at this,” Telles-Garcia said to her husband.
Another nine people were dead within a minute. Telles-Garcia was shattered all over again.
“You know, it just brought me to tears,” she said. ““I just. I don’t, I don’t understand.”