ROSWELL, N.M. — As mourners gathered for an evening vigil, witnesses described the pandemonium inside a middle school gymnasium when a seventh-grader opened fire with a shotgun, gravely injuring two students before classes began.
“I walked into the gym and heard the bangs, but I thought it was a joke — people pop bags in school all the time,” Blas Mendez, 14, told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday. “I didn’t think it was a gun until I heard all the screaming and crying.”
This southeastern New Mexico farming community of 50,000 was coming to grips with the nation’s latest school shooting, which sent a 12-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl, both students at Berrendo Middle School, to a hospital in Lubbock, Texas.
At a late-night news conference, state police identified the victims as Nathaniel Tavarez and Kendal Sanders. Nathaniel remained in critical condition after two surgeries, police said. Kendal’s condition had been upgraded from serious to satisfactory.
New Mexico Police Chief Pete Kassetas said officers had interviewed 60 of the 500 people who were inside the gym at the time of the shooting. He said authorities planned to search the suspect’s Roswell home, his school locker and his backpack.
Kassetas identified the weapon used in the shooting as a 20-gauge shotgun whose wooden stock had been sawed down, apparently to fit inside the bag in which it was sneaked into school.
He said police were investigating whether the shooter “published on social media about the attack.”
The 14-year-old Blas, in an interview with the Times, said he knew the suspect, who, he said, had warned friends and cousins not to go to the gym that morning. “He told them to go to the cafeteria instead,” Blas said.
He said the boy also warned of his attack on social media Sunday, two days before the shooting. Blas showed a post under the suspect’s online nickname that read, “Tomorrow will be the first Monday that will be fun for me lol never thot I’d say that.” However, it turned out the school was closed Monday because of plumbing problems.
At the evening news conference, authorities commended teacher John Masterson for approaching the armed boy and convincing him to lay down the weapon just after the shooting. They called him a hero.
Melissa Miranda was one of more than 1,000 community members who attended the vigil Tuesday night at the Roswell Convention Center, where people recited prayers and sang songs to the lead of a chorus and guitar player.
Miranda said all three of her children, two daughters and a son, were at the school at the northern end of town when the shooting occurred.
“I told them that no matter how bad this situation was, no matter how sad it makes you feel, it could have been a lot worse,” she said. “That young man had a gun and he opened fire in a crowd of students.”
Diego Miranda, 14, said the shooting took place before classes began and after the students had congregated in the gym, rather than in the schoolyard, because the day was cool and blustery.
He said the students were assembled on two facing bleachers, the eighth-graders taking up one and the sixth- and seventh-graders sitting in separate sections on the other.
“All the sixth- and seventh-graders started screaming and crying because they were the closest,” Diego said. “People started running out of the gym.”
Ellen Paiz, 13, was also in the gym. “I heard the first shots and thought they were fireworks,” she said.
On Tuesday night, she sat inside the convention center with her mother and a friend. Tears streamed down Ellen’s face. “I turned around to see if anyone was hit and I saw a teacher hit the floor,” she said.
The young shooter had a shotgun in his hand, Ellen said, and she looked down and saw the boy who had been shot on the floor in front of him. “There was blood everywhere,” she said, sobbing.
Later, a minister at the vigil led the mourners in prayer. In his talk, he mentioned the suspect, who was in custody Tuesday night. “I pray for that young man who walked into that school this morning with a shotgun,” he said. “I pray for his heart and I pray for his future. What was going through his mind?”
Earlier in the day, at a news conference at the school, Gov. Susana Martinez asked her state to remember the two young victims. “I am asking all New Mexicans to keep these children in your prayers,” she said. “They were shot simply sitting in a gym waiting to go to class.”
Tuesday morning, outside a mall where parents had rushed to meet up with their children, Lawrence Sanchez held his 8-year-old granddaughter, Zayanna, in his arms. The pair waited for the girl’s sister, 13-year-old Brenne, to emerge.
But Zayanna already knew her sister was safe.
“She texted me from the school to say she was fine,” the little girl said. She showed a text she had received in which her sister wrote: “And look! It’s already on the news!”
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