'I have to cling on': Teacher who survived Uvalde shooting returns to teaching despite trauma endured
Former Robb Elementary School teacher Mercedes Salas can still recall the hours leading up to the mass shooting at the school on May 24, 2022, that claimed 21 lives.
That morning, Salas was trying to figure out what to wear for the annual awards ceremony at Robb Elementary School.She was about to wear a layered chain set when she suddenly paused to look at her Catholic Virgen de Guadalupe necklace.
"My hand was going for the other necklace, but something in my head said, 'No, no, no, no, don't do that, grab your Virgen de Guadalupe necklace,'" she told ABC News.
Later that day, when Salas, a fourth grade teacher, heard shots from the 18-year-old gunman who went on to kill 19 students and two teachers, she immediately locked down her classroom, guarded her students and told them to pray. For 44 minutes, she remained on her knees and tightly held on to her Virgen de Guadalupe necklace.
"I just prayed over and over, 'protect my door, shield my wall,'" she said. "My Virgen de Guadalupe—she's part of my culture, part of me, part of my Catholic upbringing, so why not pray to her?"
As Mercedes prayed, she says she immediately became aware of how close the danger was to her.
Uvalde:365 is a continuing ABC News series reported from Uvalde and focused on the Texas community and how it forges on in the shadow of tragedy.
"I could smell gun powder coming into my classroom, it was super, super strong," she said.
Mercedes was in room 106, directly across rooms 111 and 112, where the gunman entered and started firing rounds from an AR-15.
"We heard screaming, and it was the worst screams I have ever heard," she said, becoming emotional. "Then I didn't hear any screaming, and my brain is like, 'Oh my god, he just killed them,' so I heard them die. And ever since then, I still hear them at night."
After 44 minutes of waiting for help, Mercedes and her students were finally evacuated from their classroom. Police officers smashed the windows of the room and pulled the kids out one by one. Mercedes was the last person to exit. She sustained injuries to her knees as well as numerous cuts all over her body from the broken glass.
"I didn't feel the glass cutting me, I guess it was my adrenaline going," she said. "The officer yelled at me and he said, 'Ma'am, you have to get out now,' And I understand now his sense of urgency because there are gunshots going off, but at that moment I wasn't worrying about a gunshot hitting me, I was worried about making sure all my kids were out."
MORE: A year after Uvalde school shooting, a community's quest to remember and rebuild
Mercedes says she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and received physical therapy for the injuries to her knees. Recently, she says worker's compensation has denied her additional treatment for her knees, which she is fighting.
Despite these challenges, the decision to return to teaching was not difficult for Mercedes. She now teaches fourth grade at Uvalde Elementary School.
"I felt that if I am not there, who will be there to protect the children," she said.
On the first day of class after the tragedy, Mercedes said students and parents were on edge. She tried her best to help them feel safe.
"One of the kiddos was very nervous and it was because mom had shared in 'Meet the Teacher' that she didn't want to send her child to school because she was afraid it was going happen again," she said.
There were also moments during the school year when she would break down after class ended at 3:15 p.m. and she was alone.
"Sometimes it's hard—it's 3:30 p.m. and I cry just for no reason, or it's 3:30 p.m. and I start smelling gunpowder at school, so I have to remind myself, 'You're not at Robb, you're at a new school,' so it has not been the easiest times, but I am there for my kids."
MORE: Parents of Uvalde shooting victims visit school for 1st time since massacre
When Mercedes finally received some items back from her former Robb classroom, she was surprised by one object in particular: a plant previously gifted to her by fellow teacher Arnie Reyes, the sole survivor of room 111. Mercedes used to keep the plant by the window in her class, and she remembered that the plant had fallen and crashed on the ground during the breach.
"I thought, 'Oh, my plant's gonna die,'" she said.
But her plant wasn't dead when she got it back, as it still had a single leaf on it. The plant became more significant to her than ever before.
"That plant was clinging on to life, and it did, so I made that connection to the plant, I have to cling on. If the plant can do it, I most certainly can do it," she said. "It signifies me somehow, we're clinging on."
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