UVALDE, UNITED STATES (AFP) - Fresh harrowing accounts emerged on Saturday (May 28) of the ordeal faced by survivors of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, fanning public fury over the massacre ahead of a visit Sunday by US President Joe Biden.
As residents gathered on Saturday in a central square to pay homage to the victims, haunting stories told by young students who played dead while a gunman killed 19 classmates and two teachers were underscored by accounts of the slow reaction to the spree by police.
Ten-year-old Samuel Salinas was sitting in his fourth-grade classroom when the shooter, later identified as Salvador Ramos, 18, barged in with a chilling announcement: "You're all going to die."
Then "he just started shooting," Salinas told ABC News.
Texas authorities belatedly admitted Friday that as many as 19 police officers were in the school hallway for more than an hour without acting, thinking the shooter had ended his killing, calling it the "wrong decision."
Ramos, who carried two assault-style rifles, was finally killed by police.
Uvalde survivors have described making desperate, whispered pleas for help in 911 phone calls during his assault. Many played dead to avoid drawing the shooter's attention.
Eleven-year-old Miah Cerrillo even smeared the blood of a dead friend on herself as she feigned death.
Samuel Salinas said he thinks Ramos fired at him, but the bullet struck a chair, sending shrapnel into the boy's leg.
"I played dead so he wouldn't shoot me," he said.
Another student, Daniel, whose mother would not provide his last name, said he saw Ramos fire through the glass in the classroom door, striking his teacher.
The bullets were "hot," he told the Washington Post, and when another bullet ricocheted and struck a fellow student in the nose, he said he could hear the sickening sound it made.
Though his teacher lay on the floor bleeding, she repeatedly told the students, "Stay calm. Stay where you are. Don't move," Daniel recalled.
He was finally rescued by police who broke the windows of his classroom. Since then, he has had recurrent nightmares.
By mid-morning on Saturday, several dozen people had gathered at Uvalde's courthouse square, which has become a sombre place of homage to victims and survivors.
Twenty-one simple white crosses have been erected around a fountain - one for each victim.
People have left growing piles of stuffed animals and flowers, as well as heart-rending messages: "Love you" and "You will be missed."
Local resident Humberto Renovato, 33, asked those present to hold hands, form a circle around the crosses, and pray.
'Too much fear. Too much grief'
President Joe Biden will visit Uvalde on Sunday to again make the case for gun control, as activists set about galvanizing voters on the issue in the run-up to November's midterm election.
Despite the scourge of mass shootings, efforts at nationwide gun control have repeatedly failed, though polls show broad support from Americans.
Speaking at a University of Delaware commencement on Saturday, Biden - himself a grieving father twice over - evoked the image of parents preparing to bury their children in Texas, and lamented "too much violence. Too much fear. Too much grief."
"We have to stand stronger," he told the graduates at his alma mater.
Biden's deputy, Vice-President Kamala Harris, issued a similar call on Saturday as she attended the funeral of another mass shooting victim - Ruth Whitfield, who was among the 10 killed when a white supremacist opened fire in a supermarket in Buffalo on May 14.
"We will not let those people who are motivated by hate to separate us or make us feal fear," Harris said at the funeral for the 86-year-old.
Back in Texas, the state Senate Democratic caucus issued a call Saturday for Governor Greg Abbott to convene an emergency session of the state legislature to pass legislation to raise the minimum age for firearm purchases, among other measures.
Chances of substantive change there appeared slim, however. Texas has long been one of the most gun-friendly states.
The Uvalde shooting was the deadliest school attack since 20 children and six staff were killed at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012.
Texas public safety department director Steven McCraw on Friday revealed a series of emergency calls - including by a child begging for police help - that were made from two adjoining classrooms where the gunman was barricaded.
But, explaining the delayed reaction by law enforcement, he said the on-scene commander believed at the time that Ramos was in there alone, with no survivors, after his initial assault.
McCraw separately told reporters, however, that a 911 call received at 12.16pm reported eight or nine children still alive.
As many as 19 officers were outside the classroom door at that time, according to McCraw's timeline.
McCraw said one caller - a child who dialed 911 multiple times - begged for police to come. Her final call was cut off as she made it outside.
Meantime in Uvalde, Humberto Renovato urged those gathered at the courthouse square to help survivors overcome "the trauma, the pain, the suffering" they had endured.
"As a community," he said, "we have to develop strategies of how we're going to help these kids to get out of that trauma, to get out of that pain."