A door to a classroom where the Uvalde school shooter was holed up was unlocked while police searched for a key to get in, a top Texas official said Tuesday, describing law enforcement's response to the rampage as an “abject failure.”
The admission from Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw, made at a state Senate committee hearing investigating last month’s mass killing, was another stunning addition to the list of failures he has acknowledged since the Robb Elementary School shooting.
"We do know this, there's compelling evidence that the law enforcement response to the attack at Robb Elementary was an abject failure and antithetical to everything we've learned over the last two decades since the Columbine massacre," he told lawmakers in Austin.
McCraw bluntly said the lives of police officers were valued more than those of children as gunfire tore through that south Texas campus on May 24.
"The only thing stopping a hallway of dedicated officers from (entering rooms) 111 and 112 was the on-scene commander who decided to place the lives of officers before the lives of children," he said.
"The officers have weapons, the children had none The officers had body armor, the children had none. The officers had training, the subject had none."
It’s been nearly one month since the gunman, Salvador Rolando Ramos, 18, broke into Robb Elementary School and killed 19 children and two teachers.
The carnage ended more than an hour after it started, when a Border Patrol tactical unit finally broke into the classroom where the gunman was holed up and killed him.
After the gunman crashed his truck at 11:28 a.m. that day near the school, he entered the campus at 11:33 a.m., according to McCraw.
“And he begins shooting … more than 100 rounds were fired initially," he said.
Much of the post-shooting attention has been on the response of local law enforcement and decisions made by Pete Arredondo, the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District police chief.
McCraw, in painstaking detail, went minute by minute explaining how police could have entered the unlocked room where the shooter was.
In the initial days after the shooting, it was widely reported that police were kept from breaking into the classrooms and were looking for keys because of locked doors.
McCraw confirmed recent published reports that the adjoining classrooms are only locked from the outside, so the shooter, or anyone, could have entered.
"There's no way to lock the door from the inside and there's no way for the subject to lock the door from the inside," he said.
There were 11 police officers in the school at 11:36 a.m. — three minutes after the gunman had entered the campus and could have been confronted, according to McCraw.
"I’ve alternated from sad to disappointed to flat-out angry when I read this timeline because it’s an absolute, total breakdown of any command and control," state Sen. Paul Bettencourt said. "This is a textbook example of it."
McCraw, the top Texas law enforcement official, bemoaned the long wait before officers finally confronted the killer.
"One hour, 14 minutes and 8 seconds. That’s how long the children waited and the teachers waited in rooms 111 (and 112) to be rescued," he said. "And while they waited, the on-scene commander waited for radio and rifles; and he waited for shields and he waited for SWAT."
Later in the hearing, a fuming McCraw said even officers not completely outfitted for duty should have been sent in to attack Ramos.
“I don’t care if you have flip-flops and wear Bermuda shorts, it doesn't matter, you go in,” McCraw said.
Since two students attacked Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, when police waited nearly an hour for a SWAT team to enter the building, law enforcement has stressed the urgency to engage the shooter.
"Lastly, he waited for a key that was never needed," McCraw said. "The post-Columbine doctrine is clear and compelling and unambiguous: Stop the killing, stop the dying. You can’t do the latter unless you do the former.”
And there's no evidence that officers on the scene were ever asked to check the door handle to see if it might be open, according to McCraw, who lapsed into a near-mocking tone of voice.
"How about trying the door and see if it's unlocked. It's what we used to call a 'clue,'" he said. "Why not? Of course no one had."
At 12:21 p.m., a fourth shield arrived on the scene at about the same time four shots rang out from inside the classroom — but still with no action from police outside, McCraw said.
This was another point when police should have stopped viewing the situation as that of a barricaded suspect, he said.
"So if this is a barricaded subject, why is he still firing?" McCraw rhetorically asked.
Arredondo knew at that very moment there were multiple deaths, but he apparently feared that provocative police action could lead to more bloodshed.
"'We’ve lost two kids, these walls are thin. He starts shooting, we’re going to lose more kids,'" McCraw said, quoting Arredondo from body camera audio transcripts. "'I have to say we have to put those to the side right now.'"
The embattled Arredondo's whose actions are being reviewed by both state and federal authorities has kept a remarkably low profile since the shooting.
But he pushed back at criticism, telling the Texas Tribune in a story published earlier this month that there was no way for his officers to have confronted the gunman any sooner.
A lawyer for Arredondo could not be immediately reached for comment on Tuesday.
Just before the shooting, Arredondo had won election to the Uvalde City Council.
The city council Tuesday night unanimously declined to grant Arredondo a leave of absence from future council meetings.
The rejection came after residents demanded that they vote it down.
Some expressed frustration that Arredondo can not be recalled until he has been in office for eight months and said that Arredondo did not deserve to be granted leave. One said that he should be forced to miss meetings, which could lead to the office being declared vacant.
“Let him miss three meetings,” said Kim Hammond, who lives two doors down from the elementary school. “Don’t give him an out,” she said. “We don’t want him. We want him out.”
The city charter says that if a council member misses three consecutive meetings without a leave of absence, the council could declare it vacant. Vacancies are filled by special election, the council said.
Mayor Don McLaughlin said that he would support that if it occurred. “We heard our citizens tonight — loud and clear,” he said.
Tuesday would be the first of the three absences, the mayor said.