It is 8:05 a.m. Monday morning. Almost two years ago to the minute, I was sitting at my desk as publisher of The Alvin Sun when my phone rang. That phone call and what followed over the rest of the day will be something I will never forget.
When I answered the phone, one of my ad reps was on the line. She told me she had just been passed by a slew of police cars with lights and sirens. She then said something may have happened at Santa Fe High School.
I immediately grabbed my camera, jumped into my car and took off. Santa Fe High School was eight miles away, and I arrived in probably 10 minutes. At the time, I wasn’t 100 percent sure what was happening. But when I pulled up in front of the campus, it was clear something was wrong. There were dozens of police vehicles from different agencies. That number would climb to hundreds over the next hour.
A sheriff’s deputy began stopping traffic just as I stepped out of my car. I still remember his words as he told someone, “I can’t let you through, we have an active shooter.”
That was the first shock of the day.
Without thinking much, I grabbed my camera and started walking toward the school, snapping photos as fast as I could. There were three medical helicopters on site, police running around, students running out of the back of the building. Despite all that, it felt relatively calm at the front of the building.
At that moment, inside the school, police led by two Santa Fe ISD police officers were engaged in a shootout with a 17-year-old few had ever heard of before that day. His name will be one I never forget now.
As I approached the front of the school, a police officer stopped me. He asked who I was with, and when I told him, his response was simple — “Please stay on that side of the road. We think one of these cars has bombs in it.” So, I did.
Around the same time, I heard over that officer’s radio that a suspect was in custody. After close to 30 minutes of a shootout with police, the gunman surrendered. Although it has never officially been said, I believe he ran out of ammunition.
The next few hours are a blur. Word quickly leaked out that there were victims inside the school. I saw parents in panic when their kid didn’t step off the bus. Some, I now know, buried their children soon after. One of the officers on the scene lost his mom in the school and didn’t know for hours.
Word began to leak about the shooter. The first name I heard was Dimitri. It turned out his name was Dimitrios Pagourtzis.
Names of victims began to leak as well. Classmates and family members began telling us as soon as they heard. It was a blur of activity filled with shock and sorrow. The feeling that day was something I will never forget.
Around noon, I gave my camera to my reporter Josh, and I made my way back to my car and drove to the office. Once I got there, I spent a little while updating my paper’s website and Facebook page, telling readers what I knew.
And then I shut the door to my office and cried. In over 20 years, I have covered everything possible. I have seen more dead bodies than I care to remember. I have seen tragedy, chaos and joy. But until that day two years ago, I had never cried. I was taught that as a professional, you block your emotions. But on May 18, 2018, I saw and felt things that ultimately I couldn’t hold in.
Late that night, after Gov. Greg Abbott, Sen. Ted Cruz and many others visited Santa Fe, Josh finally made it back to the office. He walked into my office and told me something along these lines — I was told in school to hold your emotions in, but all I want to do right now is cry.
I told him to cry, and he did.
The next day we both came in and started again. Back to work covering a story that still is ongoing. Dimitrios Pagourtzis has still not faced a jury, and no one is sure when he will. Ten families lost loved ones that day, and today is a two-year reminder. A whole city was hurt and has healed together as one.
It’s been a long, long time, but in many ways, it feels so fresh and new.
David Rupkalvis is the publisher of the Del Rio News-Herald