What it was like to be in the middle of events on Aug. 3, 2019
El Paso Matters retraces the events of Aug. 3, 2019, through the eyes of the Walmart store manager, a surgeon, a congresswoman, the head of an El Paso nonprofit and a funeral director.
Morning, Aug. 3, 2019
The Saturday morning was hectic for Angel Gomez and his team at Operation H.O.P.E. They were getting ready for the organization’s annual Back to School Back Pack Giveaway.
“We were anticipating anywhere between (800) to 900 children,” Gomez said.
The event, scheduled at East El Paso’s Memorial Park, was busy with parents, students, volunteers and law enforcement well before it started at 10 a.m.
For Gomez and more than 800,000 other El Pasoans, the day started as a typical summer Saturday, one of the last weekends before children went back to school. Mexican shoppers streamed over international bridges to shop in El Paso, a weekend border tradition. Temperatures were already well into the 90s, on their way to 104 on the third day of what would become El Paso’s hottest August on record.
Ten minutes away at University Medical Center of El Paso, Dr. Alejandro Rios Tovar had finished his last surgery and was getting ready to clock out. He was almost two hours over his 24-hour shift that should have ended at 8 a.m.
“I left the hospital, I went home, I hadn’t slept. I was hungry. I got McDonald’s, which I never do, and so I got home,” Rios Tovar said.
At about the same time Rios Tovar was heading home, U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, was kicking off her regularly scheduled August Town Hall meeting at Coronado High School.
“During my town hall meetings, we have two parts. The first part is a community update where I use a PowerPoint to give participants an update on legislation and activities both in Washington and in the district,” Escobar said. “Then the second half of our town hall meetings are Q&A. We open it up, people sign up in advance, they line up at the microphone, ask their questions, and I give answers.”
At about 10:30 a.m. Robert Evans, the manager of the Cielo Vista Walmart, went outside into the El Paso sunshine. He had woken up that day to a flat tire, got it fixed, and picked up breakfast for his managers. They were expecting a busy day as back-to-school items were making their way onto customer shopping lists.
“I stepped out in front of the building on the general merchandise doors and was outside taking a quick break and looking over some emails and stuff like that. Just checking off stuff,” Evans said.
As he was preparing to walk back inside, he heard what he initially thought was a car backfire. He heard another pop and quickly realized something was wrong.
“I could see the shooter, or a person with a firearm, walking up from the parking lot toward the center of the building and then proceed to fire several more shots toward the center of the building where we had a soccer fundraiser that was going on,” Evans said.
El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen said 911 calls started arriving by 10:39 a.m. Phones across El Paso started buzzing with news too.
“I got a text message about five minutes after I got home from my trauma medical director,” Rios Tovar said. “I read the text message. There wasn’t a whole lot of details that led me to believe that it was something I needed to go in right away. But a few seconds later I saw multiple additional text messages, telling me this is real. This is a real thing, active shooting.”
At Memorial Park, Gomez noticed a ripple of alerts coming in at the community event.
“The sheriff’s phones were going off, everybody’s,” Gomez said. “We had like about eight sheriffs and at different times, the phones were going off. Then all of a sudden the sergeant yells, ‘We gotta roll. We gotta roll.’”
By then, Escobar had finished the first half of her town hall with constituents when a staffer approached her.
“A member of my team walked up to me, took the microphone from my hand and quietly said, ‘Congresswoman, there’s been a shooting near Cielo Vista. We need to send everybody home because law enforcement needs to head to the scene,’ or something along the lines,” Escobar recalled.
Rios Tovar said he made it back to UMC by 11:15 a.m.
“I just saw multiple ambulances there. I went into those doors and I saw what was essentially controlled chaos where patients are coming in, trying to allocate which room which patients are going to go in,” Rios Tovar said.
He and his senior resident started working on a gunshot victim.
“He really did everything he could and I did everything we could to compress that heart, but she lost pretty much her entire bloodline. There was nothing we could do,” Rios Tovar said.
That victim was 24-year-old Jordan Anchondo. She died trying to protect her infant son.
Afternoon, Aug. 3, 2019
Through the early afternoon, teams at UMC continued to triage and care for 14 patients. Rios Tovar managed to send a quick text to his mother in McAllen to say he was OK.
He eventually left the hospital, for the second time that day, around 3 p.m.
Throughout the afternoon, bits of information began to make the rounds in the hours after the gunfire erupted at the Walmart.
“I had gotten texts with a copy, from various people, a copy of the screed, the killer’s screed that he published online. But, you know, there’d been no confirmation that it actually was his,” Escobar said.
That four-page manifesto, published online minutes before the shooting, included the shooter’s twisted reasoning for the attack, arguing “immigration can only be detrimental to the future of America.”
“Personally, I had long feared that El Paso would become a target for an attack. My biggest fear was that there would be an attack against the migrants,” Escobar said. From the fall of 2018 to the spring of 2019, El Paso had received tens of thousands of Central Americans fleeing poverty, violence, government corruption and the effects of climate change.
By 5 p.m. local leadership had been called to the Emergency Operations Center in Northeast El Paso. Escobar received her first in-person briefing on the day’s events.
“That’s where we got confirmation that the screed, that the killer confessed that he wrote that screed. That he published it. He confessed as to his motivation, which was to stop the ‘Hispanic invasion,’” Escobar said.
Throughout the afternoon, Gomez had been receiving multiple calls from the victim’s families. Gomez is the cofounder of Operation H.O.P.E., which stands for Helping Other People Endure. The nonprofit works to assist members of the community through difficult times. Gomez soon made a call to Tokyo, where funeral director Salvador Perches was vacationing with his family.
“I had a call from him, saying that families were calling him for help and that’s when everything just kind of started, the logistics of trying to figure out what we were going to do,” said Perches, who owns the only funeral home with offices in El Paso, Las Cruces, and Ciudad Juárez.
“I called my manager Jorge Ortiz to say, ‘You know what, whichever, whoever family calls us, whoever calls us, please let them know that we’re going to help them out,’” Perches said. “I just felt that I just wanted to give back to my community and tell them whatever they needed, we were going to take care of it at no charge.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott flew to El Paso in the late afternoon. He was scheduled to participate in a press conference with El Paso officials at 5:30 p.m.
“It was a very tightly controlled press conference. And we were told by the city … before going out that only the people seated at the table would speak, and that none of us would be given an opportunity to speak. Which was fine,” Escobar said.
Abbott, Mayor Dee Margo, El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen, El Paso Fire Chief Mario D’Agostino and FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Emmerson Buie sat at a table and spoke at the press conference. Most of the journalists attending were from El Paso; national and international media would descend on the city in coming days but had not yet arrived.
Allen said early in the press conference that the shooting had “a potential nexus to a hate crime” But little else was said about the shooter’s motive by press conference speakers.
Abbott talked at length about mass shootings and mental health, a connection he has made frequently after killing sprees in schools, churches and other locations in Texas. Escobar, standing behind the governor at the press conference, was visibly bothered.
As a city official announced that only one more question would be allowed, veteran El Paso journalist Robert Moore, reporting on the shooting for the Washington Post, broke through a cacophony of voices.
“The 800-pound gorilla in this room that nobody’s talking about right now is the hate crime nexus that appears at this point to be related to immigration,” said Moore, now CEO of El Paso Matters. He asked Escobar, who has been a repeated critic of anti-immigrant language from elected officials and others, to address the issue. Abbott handed her the microphone.
“Even though it was a tightly controlled press conference, and we were told no one else was allowed to speak, I reached down and I took the microphone because I felt someone had to acknowledge that hate motivated someone to slaughter members of our community,” Escobar recalled. “It was absolutely inexcusable that the governor couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge that.”
At the press conference, she said: “The manifesto narrative is fueled by hate. And it’s fueled by racism and bigotry and division.”
Night, Aug. 3, 2019
Dr. Rios-Tovar returned to UMC one more time that day around 8 p.m.
“I wanted to see how everyone was doing. I knew that I had to come back Sunday morning for another 24-hour shift,” he said.
He didn’t stay long and before the day ended he made sure to give his mother a call.
“I was able to talk with her at the end just to let her know I was OK,” Rios Tovar said. “I’m from South Texas, I’m from another border town, McAllen, Texas. The more I learned about the intentions of the shooter, where he came from, he could have very easily just as well have gone to my hometown.
”It’s scary, and so I told her that I wanted her to be safe.”
Evans had stayed near the Walmart until each of his staff members were picked up. Then he gave his statement to law enforcement before finally driving home around 9 p.m. His wife, parents, and siblings were waiting for him at his home.
“I think that was probably the biggest sigh of the day. I mean, just walking in, my family was there,” Evans said. “It was really emotional for me to sit there and explain what my day was from 8 o’clock until I walked back into the door. It’s just really emotional.”
Cover photo: Officers from numerous law-enforcement agencies swarmed the Cielo Vista Walmart on Aug. 3, 2019. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)