EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — Monday marks one year since 23 people were killed in a racist and xenophobic attack, and it took a multi-agency law enforcement response to help secure the safety of the community on one of its darkest days.
Among those first-responders, dozens of Border Patrol agents, some of whom spoke candidly with KTSM 9 News in rare interviews looking back on last year’s mass shooting and are looking ahead to how to continue to cope with the trauma.
“To think about that day is very scary,” said Joseph Kuti, a Border Patrol Search Trauma and Rescue operator. “I haven’t responded to many incidents with active shooters — we do some training on it — but you always expect the worst and hope for the best.”
The agents — like the rest of the community — learned quickly that the worst, the unspeakable, had happened.
Nathan Davis, a supervisory Border Patrol agent, tells KTSM 9 News that he initially hoped the shooting wasn’t that serious because of the number of ambulances he saw leaving the Cielo Vista area by the time he arrived on site.
But that hope was quickly shattered.
“We saw the bodies there laying on the ground,” Davis remembers.
The ambulances he saw leaving the scene were filled with victims who needed immediate attention.
“At that moment I realized it was far worse than I thought it was going to be,” Davis said.
It wouldn’t take long for law enforcement to use items like shopping carts to help move the many victims to triage areas.
There were so many.
And then first responders were tasked with triaging and transporting the injured as others pursued the shooter.
“Lights and sirens the whole way,” Davis said.
Shopping at the Cielo Vista Walmart was once a cultural activity enjoyed by families on both sides of the border. It wasn’t uncommon to spend a day at the Walmart and neighboring Sam’s Club and mall to stock-up on necessities: Groceries, school supplies, and outfits for the first day of school.
Since last August, these activities have lost any sense of being an exercise in community conviviality in favor of security and social distancing.
“You’re on edge — anytime,” Kuti tells KTSM 9 News. “I’m pretty sure everybody is going through the experience of going to Walmart after that — and looking around — just looking around to see everybody, and how they’re reacting…if it was going to happen again.”