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When a gunman opened fire in two classrooms in Uvalde, Texas, 19 children died. Two fourth graders wounded in the massacre are still trying to recover.
By Edgar Sandoval
Photographs by Tamir Kalifa
UVALDE, Texas — The better part of a year had elapsed since a gunman entered the classroom where Noah Orona and Mayah Zamora were fourth-grade students in Uvalde, Texas.
One of the 142 rounds he firedinside the school that day had shredded through the slender back of 10-year-old Noah, exiting near his shoulder blade. Mayah was shot seven times, in her chest, arm and both hands.
Their two teachers died that day, as did half their classmates. Noah survived by pretending to be dead, bleeding on the floor for more than an hour as police officers waited to storm the classroom.
In the aftermath, during the months of Noah’s physical therapy, Jessica Diaz-Orona had scrupulously kept her son away from any visible reminder of the horror. But now, she judged, it was time. After taking Noah to lunch at the restaurant he liked downtown, she walked him past the large murals honoring the 19 students and two teachers who had lost their lives. She pointed out three of the victims he knew best, Tess Mata, Layla Salazar and Alithia Ramirez, all smiling, the way she hoped he would remember them.
Noah nodded and focused on his shoes.
When they climbed back into the truck, she asked him how things were going at his new private school, and he showed her the superhero costume he had made that day for a project. It was a purple mask and a cape emblazoned with the word “Zap!”
“What superpower would you like to have?” she asked.
He had an answer right away: the power to create an alternate world, where “bad things” never happened. Then he put on his earbuds and stared out of the window the rest of the way home.
Mayah, now 11, has hardly been back to Uvalde at all: Her parents moved the family an hour and a half away to San Antonio — closer to the hospital where doctors, in surgery after surgery, have tried to remove the bits of metal shrapnel lodged in her body.
Both families have watched as their children have slowly, remarkably, begun to heal from the brutal force of the AR-15-style rifle that was aimed at them nearly a year ago, an attack that turned the small city of Uvalde into a symbol of the nation’s escalating excursions into inexplicable violence.
Neither completely recognizes the child they have now.
The names and faces of the students who died have become familiar, their parents joining an ever-larger cadre of homegrown lobbyists who appear on television and at legislative hearings, reliving the tragedy, pleading for stricter gun laws.
Much less has been heard from the children like Noah and Mayah, who managed to survive.
They have changed in ways only their parents can see. Noah rarely leaves his room these days. Mayah runs to her room or hides under the kitchen table when someone knocks at the door unannounced.
Progress has taken place in quiet and solemn moments, behind the doors of hospital rooms, with tears and reassuring hugs in the kitchen and all-night vigils in the children’s bedrooms as they attempt once again to sleep on their own.
“Noah is not the same boy,” said his father, Oscar Orona.
Mayah’s mother, Christina Zamora, said it was “a miracle” her daughter survived at all.
“We are happy she is here with us,” she said. “But this is a different Mayah.”
An Hour Under Siege
It was around 11:30 a.m. on the morning of May 24; Noah and Mayah and their classmates in Room 112 at Robb Elementary School had started watching the movie “Lilo & Stitch,” a treat on one of the last days of school. Their teachers, Irma Garcia and Eva Mireles, roamed the room, keeping everyone settled.
The 11 students nearby in Room 111, connected by an unlocked interior door, were watching “The Addams Family.”
That was when the gunman, who within days of his 18th birthday had purchased two AR-15-style rifles and more than 1,700 rounds of 5.56 millimeter hollow-point bullets, burst in from the hallway. He unleashed a barrage of gunfire in both classrooms.
While Noah played dead, Mayah lay bleeding next to a girl who called 911, more than once, when the shooter would stride for a minute into the adjoining classroom. Hearing the voices of the officers outside, Mayah whispered to another injured girl next to her: Rescue was surely on the way. Ms. Mireles was badly wounded but managed to get a call through to her husband, a school district police officer who was outside the school. She pleaded for help.
But help was slow in coming. Reluctant to breach the classrooms before a tactical team arrived with better fortifications, the police officers waited 77 minutes before rushing in and killing the gunman. By the time it was over, Ms. Garcia was dead. Ms. Mireles, who had used her body to try to shield Noah and a few other students, was mortally wounded. So was the girl Mayah had tried to encourage. The teacher in Room 111, Arnulfo Reyes, who had told his students to get under their desks and “act like you are asleep,” was wounded. All of his students were killed. Out of 17 students in Room 112, eight were dead.
The Oronas remember running back to the school when they heard the report of an active shooter. As soon as he got out of his truck, Mr. Orona was overwhelmed by the stench of gunpowder in the air.
He could not get to his son’s classroom. Noah had been crying hysterically at the moment that the tactical team finally entered, video images showed later, but by the time he was loaded into an ambulance, he had shut down, Mrs. Diaz-Orona said. “He has not cried since.”
At the first hospital he was taken to, in Uvalde, Noah apologized because his clothes were covered in blood and he had lost a pair of eyeglasses. Mr. Orona leaned over for a reassuring kiss on his head. “I told him that I was so proud of him for being so brave,” he said.
Noah was then rushed by helicopter to a bigger hospital in San Antonio. The doctors had said that the bullet that went through Noah’s upper torso had not touched any vital organs. But Mr. Orona had assumed the wound would be about the size of a bullet; he was not ready for the large hole he saw in his son’s back, surrounded by severely mangled tissue. “It’s horrific, that those weapons cause so much damage,” he said.
On another helicopter, a mobile medical staff pumped two units of blood into Mayah; she got four more at the hospital.
Dr. Ronald Stewart, a senior trauma surgeon at University Hospital in San Antonio who treated her, had seen these kinds of extreme injuries five years earlier, when a gunman armed with another AR-15-style rifle killed 26 people and wounded 22 others at a church in nearby Sutherland Springs.
“The AR-15 class of firearms is specifically designed to inflict maximum damage to multiple people, particularly at close or medium distances,” Dr. Stewart said.
Unlike a typical handgun, which might propel a bullet into an arm or a chest, an AR-15-style rifle fires at such velocity that the bullets create a pressure wave, carving a cavity through the body that destroys tissue and internal organs along its path.
Doctors intubated Mayah and began the first of what would ultimately be about 60 grueling surgeries: reconstructive surgery to repair her right hand, which was nearly torn apart; skin grafts to cover the gouged flesh; incisions to remove dead tissue and bullet fragments lodged near her wounds.
By June, her condition was upgraded from critical to fair, and she was able to begin physical therapy. She was still unable to walk or move like she used to but was spending six hours a day working to regain movement of her legs and hands.
She struggled to feel normal, Mrs. Zamora said. One day at the hospital, Mayah asked for fake nails. No, her mother told her. Her right hand was still scarred and swollen, and the nails would get in the way of the exercises she needed to do.
“Lloró y se enojaba” — she would cry and get mad, Mrs. Zamora said.
In late July, she finally left the hospital; dozens of medical staff members stood along the hallway, applauding and chanting her name as Mayah walked out in shorts and a pink T-shirt, handing out flowers to her caregivers.
It was “amazing and beautiful,” Dr. Stewart said, wiping away tears as he recounted the story. “First step in the mission.”
Weeks later at home, wearing sweatpants and a hoodie, Mayah showed off her pointy white acrylic nails to her mother and older brother, Zach, who is 12.
Mrs. Zamora and her husband, Ruben, had rented a modest, furnished, one-story house on a quiet street in San Antonio. They decorated it with Mayah’s paintings, canvases of forests, pine trees, rainbows and hearts on almost every wall.
But even there, loud noises sometimes terrify Mayah. She wakes up crying with nightmares and sometimes runs to her brother’s room.
Because Mayah was fearful of going to school, Mrs. Zamora decided to home-school both children, and has continued to take her daughter to physical and psychological therapy sessions.
At first, both siblings retreated to their corners of the house, Zach not sure how to act around his sister. But more recently, the two have begun bickering again. Mrs. Zamora yells at them to cut it out but secretly likes that they are acting more like they used to.
“I hate his friends,” Mayah complained, crossing her arms to drive her point home. She does not like it that the boys are so loud when they play video games, she said. Zach shrugged and went back to his room.
Mayah likes to spend time on her phone, sharing bits of her life with close friends on social media: smiling selfies, videos of her dancing. She imagines a life in the arts, of being a painter or maybe a singer. “I want to be famous and walk the red carpet,” she said.
To help her learn responsibility, her parents let her get a dog, a black Bernedoodle named Rocky. The two have become inseparable and sleep on the same bed. On a calendar in the living room, Mayah maneuvers a black marker with her new nails and marks the upcoming milestones. Feb. 13, “Rocky last shot.” Feb. 22, “Happy 4 mos Rocky!” with a smiley face.
Mrs. Zamora struggles with how to be a parent. At first, reprimanding her daughter felt excruciating. But then she decided that a measure of normalcy was good for her. “I had to be her mom again, you know?”
One afternoon, after another long day of medical appointments, the family sat at the kitchen table and discussed what to do for dinner. Mayah jumped up and marched to the kitchen. “Mommy, I want to make an orange smoothie,” she said.
Mrs. Zamora chased after her. “You know what I hear? ‘Mommy, I’m going to make a mess.’”
One thing they almost never talk about is what happened that day at school.
But in February, the parents of one of Mayah’s classmates, Tess Mata, invited them to mark what would have been Tess’s 11th birthday. It was going to be where Tess was, at the cemetery in Uvalde.
Mayah and Noah have not seen each other since the shooting. Parts of the group from Room 112 got together over the summer for a photo, and there has been talk of raising money for a few of the survivors to take a trip to Disneyland.
The Zamoras thought hard about going to the ceremony at the cemetery.
Uvalde is where they had met as teenagers, where Mrs. Zamora had always planned to raise her family. Now whenever they were near the city and saw a road sign for Uvalde, their hearts sank.
They would do it this time, they decided.
On a warm, sunny day, they joined other attendees and gathered around Tess’s burial plot, most wearing black T-shirts featuring photos of Tess, and released purple balloons into the air. Mayah quietly studied the graves and noticed there was not one for another one of her friends, Maite Rodriguez. She leaned over to Tess’s mother, Veronica Mata. “Where is Maite?” she asked.
Ms. Mata explained that the family had chosen to cremate her. Still perplexed, Mayah asked her mother where Maite’s ashes were. “Sometimes parents want to keep their ashes at home, to be closer to them,” Mrs. Zamora whispered.
Mayah nodded and grew quiet.
‘Our Little Hero’
The Oronas had also thought about moving away from Uvalde, the only place they have called home. But they decided to stay. At least in Uvalde, Mr. Orona reasoned, people would understand what their son had gone through, why he sometimes acted differently than other children.
Noah spent only about a week in the hospital. But then there were eight months of physical therapy: exhausting sessions on a StairMaster to build his endurance; a shoulder press machine to regain his upper-body strength. Mrs. Orona said she sometimes held back tears when he would look to her for help. “Mom, it hurts so much,” he would say, pointing at his shoulder. But she would push him gently to keep going. “He never gave up,” she said. “He is our little hero.”
Gradually, Noah regained nearly full movement of his limbs and started counseling sessions once a week. They tried to take him out to the mall or to a movie, and Noah would push himself to be more social; then he would suddenly become withdrawn, overwhelmed by crowds and loud noise.
When school started in September, he told his parents he did not feel safe joining his former classmates at the public school in another part of town where students from Robb Elementary had been transferred. They enrolled him instead at Sacred Heart Catholic School, and he joined a youth basketball team to test the limits of his recovering body. “He doesn’t shoot a lot of baskets,” his mother said. “We just want to see him try and be a normal boy.”
When asked what had been the biggest struggle this past year, Noah cast his eyes down. “The shooting,” he said softly. And then: “The therapy.”
The Oronas have struggled to picture what happened in the classroom that day, reluctant to press their son to relive it. Noah has said little to his father and shared with his mother only his recollections of his teacher, Ms. Mireles, and how she had thrown herself between him and the gunman to try and shield him.
“I just feel like when and if he’s ready, I’ll be more than glad to listen,” Mr. Orona said.
At home, Noah feels safest in his room, which is decorated with family photos, comic book figurines and wall art of Pac-Man and King Kong. He plays video games to pass the time. One recent day, he sat at the desk in his room and carefully drew a figure of Spider-Man, his favorite superhero.
He says he sometimes sees himself in the hero’s alter ego, Peter Parker, a kid who like him wears dark-rimmed glasses and sometimes feels like an outsider. “He’s shy but then becomes a cool superhero,” Noah said softly as he drew the spider web marks on the mask, and oval eyes. “I wish I had his superpowers.”
Noah sometimes gets lost in thought when he is in his room, his parents say, and they have to announce themselves before walking in, or he gets startled. They have to keep the door open. If even a few minutes pass without hearing his parents’ voices, Noah seeks them out.
“If I’m going to the yard I have to tell him, ‘I’m going outside. Mom’s in the room,’” Mr. Orona said. “He needs to know where we are at all times.”
Every night, his father puts him to bed with a kiss on his forehead and turns on a night light in the shape of a blue Pac-Man ghost.
At times, they feel overwhelmed. They wonder if they are getting too old to offer their son the lifetime of help he is likely to need.
Each of them already had their own teenage children from earlier relationships when they met, and when they had Noah, they were older than most parents; Mr. Orona will turn 60 this year, and his wife is eight years younger. Mrs. Orona had Noah five months after her adult daughter had her own child. Now, when Mr. Orona goes to school meetings, he feels like the other dads might be his nephews. “Who will care for him if we are no longer around?” he wonders.
Noah has been interested lately in talking about the future. He would like to become a dental hygienist or a veterinarian, he said.
He has pushed himself to confront what happened in his own quiet way. For months, he shied away from going to the Uvalde Plaza, where people trickle daily to pay their respects before the murals, and the 21 white wooden crosses for each of the victims.
On that day earlier this year when they finally went there, Noah looked quietly at the images of his friends. He later knelt for several pensive minutes in front of a cross adorned with flowers and photos of Ms. Mireles.
Back at home, when it was time to leave for basketball practice, he shot a few baskets outside the house on a hoop his father had just installed. Mrs. Diaz-Orona looked at her watch. They were already 45 minutes late, but she decided to say nothing, watching as her son tossed the ball at the net: once, twice, three times, until it fell into the hoop.
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