UVALDE, Texas (AP) — Gilbert Limones and a coworker at a funeral home were among the first people shot at by the gunman who killed 19 children and two teachers at a Texas elementary school. He’s spent most of his days since helping prepare for the young victims’ burials and consoling shattered families.
On Sunday, Limones swapped his role of funeral attendant for that of a preacher trying to comfort a community and explain horror that defies easy answers. He’s also the pastor at Casa El Shaddai, a small church located less than a mile from where the carnage occurred.
“When tragedies happen, all the enemy needs is a willing vessel,” Limones told his congregation of about 35, meeting for the first time in an old restaurant converted into a worship space.
While Limones didn’t suffer any physical injuries, he said he is exhausted and wracked with guilt that he couldn’t do something to stop the bloodshed. He has spent hours in tears or prayer, sometimes both at the same time.
Still, Limones tried to find the words to assuage his part of a heavily Hispanic town of 16,000 that’s sad, confused and raw with emotion nearly two weeks after the slaughter. Satan brought confusion and hurt, he said, but the faithful have a defense.
“Church, you are armed by this,” he said, holding up a Bible. It was Limones’ first sermon since the killing; he was too busy with work at the funeral home to serve last week.
Limones, who preaches in both Spanish and English, has salt-and-pepper hair and a smile that’s wide in happy times. He was animated before the congregation, which meets just one right turn and another left away from Robb Elementary School and Hillcrest Memorial Funeral Home. The two sit on opposite sides of Geraldine Street, near where 18-year-old Salvador Ramos shot and wounded his grandmother in the face at home before the school attack.
On the morning of May 24, Limones and Cody Briseno, another funeral attendant at Hillcrest, heard a vehicle crash. A gray Ford pickup truck had come to rest in a concrete ditch behind the school and across from the funeral home, and they soon saw a man dressed all in black beside the passenger door, according to a search warrant.
Authorities said Limones and Briseno walked toward the man but retreated when they realized he was putting a magazine into a rifle. A shooter identified as Ramos fired multiple times at them.
Limones said he recalls hearing someone yell about a weapon and then turning, only to hear the “pop, pop, pop” of gunfire behind him. The shooter was within about 150 feet (46 meters) of him but missed somehow, Limones said.
Limones said he got away as quickly as he could, cringing at every shot, and calling police as soon as he could. “I was screaming, screaming at 911,” he said.
But Ramos turned the gun on the school’s exterior and then entered the building through a door that authorities say didn’t lock when a teacher pulled it shut. “I saw it all,” said Limones.