In Santa Fe, teachers' yells sent students scrambling for safety

SANTA FE, Texas — Yolanda Cadriel had thought it was a normal drill when the fire alarm went off in her first-period class at Santa Fe High School on Friday morning, and she and others filed out — until a teacher ran up and told her and her classmates to run.

She and the other students who had been waiting on school grounds for the principal to call them back to class took off running and sought shelter behind Indian Automotive across the street.

The narrow strip of space behind the windowless building where state vehicle inspections and repairs are done became the barrier between students and the carnage taking place in their school.

"A teacher that I know, he ran up to us and told us to run across the highway and we went to Indian Automotive. I never heard the shots, I didn't know what was happening," said Cadriel, 18, a senior. "They told us to hide behind the buildings and cars."

Even as a gunman opened fire, Santa Fe High School teachers and staff pushed, guided or directed students to safety, sending them to any shield of protection they could find, witnesses said.

Stories trickled out Saturday in the southeast Texas town near Houston about how this community looked out for its own, stories that mixed gratitude with heartbreak as official confirmation came of the names of the two teachers and eight students who were killed.

"I was confused, but I trusted him to tell us what we needed to do," Cadriel said of her teacher.

Authorities said Dimitrios Pagourtzis, 17, armed with a shotgun and .38-caliber pistol, opened fire at the school sometime before calls of an active shooter came in to police at around 7:32 a.m. local time Friday (8:32 a.m. ET).

Pagourtzis exited an art lab classrooms at around 8:02 a.m. and surrendered and later admitted to police that he shot multiple people inside the school with the intention of killing them, police said in court documents. He is charged with capital murder and aggravated assault against a public servant, and is being held without bond.

Cristina Surber, the mother of a freshman at Santa Fe, said her daughter was in theater class. Surber said her daughter told her that her class heard the fire alarm, but also heard what sounded like shots. Before releasing students, the teacher checked whether it was actually a fire drill, but was told it was a shooting, Surber said.

"The teacher took the students to a room with steel doors called shop," Surber said. "She [her daughter] texted me and told me she was OK."

Mehran Ali had arrived at the convenience store and gas station he manages just down the street from the high school at around 6 a.m. on the morning of the shooting. A former Houston school district teacher, he regularly sees teachers and students come in and out of the store.

Suddenly a girl who was crying came running into the store, "then after a little bit you see our whole parking lot full of students, faculty and parents," Ali said.

The store "was packed at one point," Ali said. “We didn’t mind ... We wanted everybody to be safe," he said.

Because they'd left all their belongings at the school, including cell phones, Ali said he allowed the students and staff to use their phone to call loved ones and check in as safe, and gave away water, soda and other goods.

One of the wounded in Friday’s shooting was Santa Fe school district police officer John Barnes, who was in critical but stable condition late Saturday, officials said. The police chief said two officers "engaged him right away," referring to the suspected shooter.

"Our officers went in there and did what they could," Santa Fe ISD Police Chief Walter Braun said.

For four hours Saturday, school buses with a police escort shuttled students and staff from the junior high school to the high school to retrieve their belongings.

Yellow crime scene tape cordoned off the parking lot and grassy areas leading to the lots. But law enforcement kept reporters, cameras and anyone not shuttled in or with official business at a distance. A similar perimeter was set up by the junior high school.

Two girls who were at the junior high, where high school students gathered to be taken to the high school to pick up their belongings on Saturday, said their teachers screamed and yelled at them to "go as fast as we could." They said it was helpful. Most students thought it was a fire alarm and walked casually to the fence.

"We weren't taking it really seriously until they started yelling at us," said one of the girls, who declined to give their names.

"The only sign of relief I had was once my dad — because my dad was parked outside of the school — he said that they got the shooter and they were taking them out in handcuffs," the second girl said.

A family assistance center and volunteer center also was set up in the city. People with comfort dogs were seen walking from the church but media also was barred from that area and volunteers had been told not to speak to media.

Pagourtzis’ family said in a statement Saturday that "We are as shocked and confused as anyone else by these events that occurred," that they are cooperating with authorities, and that "what we have learned from media reports seems incompatible with the boy we love."

"We extend our most heartfelt prayers and condolences to all of the victims," the family said. "We also wish to thank all the first responders from all over Texas that assisted in rendering aid and support."

Small memorials began forming at the school Saturday with bouquets of roses and carnations, a T-shirt that said "poet" and a sign that said: "Pray for Santa Fe."

Takeisa Fontenot, 30, a substitute teacher in Galveston County, prayed with her mother, Ulrica, before one of the memorials. They had come in from Texas City and La Marque just to say prayers for the victims and the community.

Sandra and Amaury Mercado had driven in from Katy, Texas, to drop a bouquet of flowers in front of the school.

"Just the feeling you feel as a mother, it's hard," Sandra Mercado said while her children sat in the back seat.

"And that's why we tell him every day that we love him before he gets off the car," her husband added, referring to their 13-year-old son.

"We gotta make sure he knows we love him, because you don't know," he said. "You don't know what might happen."