ROSWELL, N.M. — Within an hour after a 12-year-old boy opened fire with a shotgun inside his middle school gymnasium here Tuesday, gravely wounding two students, hundreds of parents waited at a nearby mall to collect their stunned children, some of whom had witnessed the attack.
Outside an entrance to the Roswell Mall, between the La Salsa restaurant and the Hobby Lobby, a crowd with anguished faces parted to allow the town's teary sons and daughters to pass.
The Berrendo Middle School students walked gingerly past a clutch of sympathizers. Many children seemed in shock: tiny girls with glasses and mammoth backpacks, boys in sweat shirts bearing the school mascot bulldog, who maybe yesterday were too old to cry. But not today.
One buried his face in his mother's chest and wailed.
"Mama's got you," the woman whispered. "Mama's got you." She hugged her son as though she would never let him go.
On Tuesday morning, this southeastern New Mexico farming community took its turn at a grim national ritual: picking up the pieces after another outburst of youth violence.
Just before 8 a.m., authorities say, a boy some described as an outcast opened fire in the crowded gym. Seconds later, a teacher coaxed him to lay down the weapon and he was taken into custody. But two students lay gravely wounded.
A 12-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl were flown to a hospital in Lubbock, Texas. The boy was in critical condition and the girl was in serious condition, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez said at an afternoon news conference at the isolated middle school, which sits atop a bluff at the northern edge of this town of 50,000 people.
By nightfall, officials had released their names: Nathaniel Tavarez, who remained in critical condition after two surgeries, and Kendal Sanders, whose condition had been upgraded from serious to satisfactory after surgery.
The suspect's name was not released. A former student at the school referred to the shooter as "troubled."
"He never made eye contact with anyone," said Gabbie Vasquez, 12, who attended Berrendo Middle School until transferring last year. Her mother, Lisa Madero, said the boy "was bullied a lot."
Authorities said the gym erupted in chaos when the shooting began. Students had been allowed into the gym before classes began because of cold, windy weather. The shooter spirited the weapon, described only as a shotgun, into the building inside a bag, despite the presence of security guards.
School Supt. Tom Burris said officials had recently completed an "active shooter" response drill to deal with such violence. "It was 10 seconds since the shooting started that that teacher had control of the weapon," he said. "There was no cowardice. There was protection of our kids."
Earlier in the day, as Ynez Fox sat at her computer at a local hospital, she saw police cars and ambulances rushing in the direction of the middle school, which her 12-year-old son, Spencer, attends.
"I couldn't breathe," she said. "I feared the worst."
Then Spencer called from an unfamiliar cellphone number.
"Mom, there's been a shooting at school," he said, "but I'm OK." His voice was calm, almost without emotion. She assumed it was because he was in shock.
"It wasn't even his phone," Fox said. "He doesn't even have a cellphone. But he's going to get one now."
Like hundreds of other parents, Fox hurried to Roswell Mall, where students had been taken. Children walked single-file from buses as their parents waited on the other side of the mall.
The scene among the waiting adults was like an impromptu community meeting that nobody wanted to attend. Cars screeched up, disgorging mothers and fathers on cellphones. Neighbors shook hands. Men stuck their hands nervously into their pockets as women pushed strollers, tears in their eyes.
Suddenly, someone shouted: "The eight-graders are coming out over there!" and scores moved at once. A woman said into her cellphone: "I love you, honey. I'm here outside the mall. Take your time. I'm here."
Jamie Furney, 49, a social worker at the school, waited for her 12-year-old son, Dale. "I don't know when this violent madness will end," she said. "But until we find some way to get a handle on these kids being bullied at school, it's only going to get worse."
Frances Bailey walked more slowly than the other adults. The tiny grandmother was there to collect her son's two children because he was a single parent who couldn't leave work. "Kids today are under so much pressure," she said. "Social media. The violence on TV."
At the mall entrance, officials called out students' names and parents rushed forward, waving their driver's licenses as identification. Each meeting started with an embrace, a gush of emotion and tears.
Lupe Flores stood hugging her 14-year-old son, Jonathan. "I blame the parents," she said. "Kids can't buy guns. They have to get them at home."
She touched her son's face. The boy said he didn't know when he'd go back to school.
"I feel scared," he said.
Then they walked off, the mother's arm draped protectively around her son's shoulder.
Times staff writer Michael Muskal in Los Angeles contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times