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Uvalde shooting survivors seek comfort anywhere, including in the arms of bikers

Celeste Ibarra and her daughter, Aubriella Melchor, who survived the mass shooting on Tuesday, prayed with members of the Journey Riders, Sons of God Motorcycle Club, including Adam Torres (far left) at Murphy USA gas station in Uvalde, Texas.
Vanessa Romo
Celeste Ibarra and her daughter, Aubriella Melchor, who survived the mass shooting on Tuesday, prayed with members of the Journey Riders, Sons of God Motorcycle Club, including Adam Torres (far left) at Murphy USA gas station in Uvalde, Texas.

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UVALDE, Texas — People in Uvalde are praying everywhere and all the time.

At the makeshift memorial in the town square, there are at least two people at any given time offering to pray with mourners gathered there. At the Local Fix, a small coffee shop and restaurant near the center of town, clusters of people close their eyes and clasp their hands together as they wait to put in their orders.

Even at Murphy USA — a gas station on Main Street at the east edge of town — members of the Journey Riders, Sons of God Motorcycle Club, a Christian biker group, lay their hands on a petite little girl who survived the bloody massacre at Robb Elementary School on Tuesday.

Nine-year-old Aubriella Melchor told NPR she narrowly escaped the slaughter because she'd been in the bathroom when the gunman entered the school.

Somewhere in the middle of washing her hands and drying them she missed the teachers yelling and warning children that there was an active shooter in the building. So as she stepped out into the hallway, Melchor said, she stepped into an exchange of gunfire between the shooter, who was running down the hallway, and law enforcement.

"I hear him shoot and I think he was shooting an officer," the girl said, quietly. "Then I saw his feet running past the restroom, and he starts shooting again, so I went back in and I duck and hide."

Adam Torres, president of the San Antonio chapter of the Christian biker group, the Journey Riders, towers over Melchor and her mother Celeste Ibarra as he holds his hands over them.

"This is a brave little girl and a brave mother," he said with his eyes closed.

The motorcycle club made the 85 mile trek early to provide some comfort to anyone who is seeking "the love of God."

Several dozen riders joined the caravan on their Harleys and others drove behind them in cars adorned with flags. In all they spent a handful of hours in town, praying with people on the sidewalk, in stores and parking lots, and the gas station.

And it appears they have provided at least a few moments of respite for Ibarra and her daughter, who said she feels "sad, frustrated, and scared" since the shooting.

"We just met this lady and her daughter and we just wanted to show them that there's hope and there's people on the other side," Torres told NPR.

A 9-year-old relives the horror

From inside Robb Elementary, Melchor said she remembered hearing three shots ring out, and says it sounded as if the gunman "was kicking a door [to a nearby classroom] and then he opened it and he started shooting."

Melchor doesn't know how long she was there alone. Her mother told NPR that the third grader remained "crouched in a ball — in a fetal position — on the floor."

When officers finally came in to take the child to safety, Melchor was still curled up on the floor of a bathroom stall. She remembers that she was too afraid to make a sound or look up. All she could see was two shoes on the other side of the door.

And when the officers called out to see if there was anyone inside, she remained silent. It wasn't until she took a peek from under the door and saw their badges that she trusted it was safe to come out.

"I saw those badges and I say, 'I'm here,' " she said.

Ibarra wiped away tears from her face as she listened to her daughter recount the horrific story. She soothingly stroked the little girl's back and adjusted a big purple bow on Melchor's head. Then she recalled her own nightmare of urging law enforcement to put an end to the massacre.

"I was on the phone with my mom and I just told her if she doesn't come out within the next few minutes, I'm going in," Ibarra said.

Ibarra had heard about the active shooter on a police scanner while driving in to work. By the time she arrived, local police had already cuffed one mother who was attempting to enter the school to retrieve her child. A father broke a classroom window, climbed into the school and rescued his children.

"That's when the police officer actually started helping," Ibarra said bitterly, adding, "I understand they have their protocols also, but I mean, it was a long time before any of our kids were a priority to them."

"I didn't care what they would do to me," Ibarra said, "I was going to get her no matter what."

In the end, she didn't have to. Just as she was about to climb over the chain-link fence around the building, she said, "I saw her coming out with a state trooper and a Border Patrol [officer]."

"So I just grabbed her from there and literally dragged her to my truck."

The nightmare lingers

Melchor explained that she imagines hearing noises in the night, and doesn't want to be by herself. Ibarra said Melchor and her sister have taken to sleeping in the same bed with her.

"It's a lot," Ibarra said.

That's why she welcomes the offers of prayer even from strangers at a gas station.

"We just arrived and they prayed for [Melchor] and gave her a little sense of peace and calmness because she doesn't talk to anybody," Ibarra said about her daughter.

She added: "She's a very quiet person. So for her to hug and, you know, feel made me feel really comfortable."

Ibarra looked over at her daughter, whose arms were wrapped around Torres' trunk-like left leg.

"Thank you," she said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.