Sonia Lopez knows the exact moment her life changed: 11:09 a.m. on May 18.
“I remember the time,” Lopez said. After three and a half hours of waiting, she’d just been told that her 16-year-old daughter, Sarah Salazar, had been shot at Santa Fe High School. Lopez didn’t know if she was alive or dead.
At that moment, Sonia Lopez participated in the horrifying ritual that parents across the United States routinely endure after a school massacre: The wrenching uncertainty after hearing that a shooter has targeted your child’s school. Frantic phone calls, sharing fragments of information. Getting word that the shooter turned their weapon on your child. Processing whether your child is injured, clinging to life, or dead. Waiting in hospital wings and wondering if you will need a funeral director.
Just as students around the US scan classrooms for hidden spaces and plot escape routes, thinking, just in case, parents, too, steel themselves for these moments. At 11:09 a.m. on May 18, Lopez was just the latest parent to participate in the ritual, and she will not be the last.
So far in 2018, 36 people have been killed by a school shooter. Ten of them died at Santa Fe, where 13 others were injured.
Sarah is one of those 13, thanks to surgery that stemmed the bleeding from two major veins in her neck. Lopez’s life has predictably been turned upside down ever since.
Her days are now spent at the hospital by Sarah’s bedside, organizing doctors and appointments. Then there are the stunningly surreal moments.
Her marriage has broken down.
She’s met the president of the United States.
An NFL star dropped by to check on them.
“I was in shock for four or five days,” Lopez, who has five daughters, aged 10 to 17, said. “It’s just a lot to handle to see a child like that. And to see the other children see their sister like that and to see the pain in their little eyes. It’s a lot to deal with.”
At 7:30 a.m. that Friday, Lopez’s eldest daughter, Suzannah Salazar, a junior at Santa Fe, called her.
“Mom, get over here right now. There’s a shooting in the school. It sounds like where Sarah is, and Sarah is not answering my calls,” the 17-year-old told her.
Lopez knew her second-eldest daughter, Sarah, was in art class, her favorite, during first period that morning — the class the shooter had targeted.
Sarah, a sophomore, had recently finished a statue in class that was “so good the teacher wouldn’t let her bring it home, they put it on display,” Lopez said. She’d also been a recent finalist at a rodeo art show.
Lopez lives with her daughters just a half mile from the high school, the same one she attended as a teen. She rushed to the school.
Authorities wouldn’t let parents onto school grounds and pushed them to the opposite side of Highway 6. Lopez found Suzannah at a Shell gas station across from the school.
Sarah still wasn’t answering her phone. Officials told parents to stop calling their children — so the rings and buzzes and whispered I love yous would not give away their hiding spot to the shooter.
Lopez thought she saw Sarah among the masses of students crossing the highway — she had the same dark hair. She yelled Sarah’s name. “I kept calling her and calling her. She never looked,” said Lopez. Eventually, the girl turned. It wasn’t Sarah.
By 8 a.m., authorities sent worried parents to register at the Alamo gym, about 2.5 miles down the road. Children who were still inside the school would be evacuated there.
Lopez raced over and said she was the first to write her name on the list. Parents were then directed to Fritz Barnett Intermediate School, an unused building located a five-minute walk around the corner.
When they arrived, another set of officials told them to head back to the gym.
“It was just so much confusion. No one had answers. No one knew anything,” Lopez said. “That’s the worst thing, not knowing what’s going on.”
Buses slowly started arriving with students from the high school. Lopez desperately searched for her daughter’s face among them.
“I was just standing there against the cyclone fence, just looking to see if my child was walking and she never was,” Lopez said.
For hours she waited outside the gym, praying and fearing the worst.
The buses stopped arriving. Lopez asked when the next was coming. “That was the last bus,” she said someone told her.
“I knew something was wrong. I knew it. I knew it the whole time. I knew it,” she told BuzzFeed News, speaking from her daughter’s hospital room.
Finally, a woman came out of the gym and yelled Lopez’s name.
She hurried inside. Someone dialed the number of a nurse at the hospital for her and handed her a phone. Her own cellphone switched off amid the crush of messages and calls from friends and family.
The nurse confirmed her fears: “Your daughter has been shot.”
A friend put Lopez and Suzannah into her car — where Lopez charged her phone and that time popped up: 11:09 a.m. — and rushed them to Clear Lake Regional Medical Center. Sarah was in surgery.
Paramedics initially thought Sarah was dead. They found her in the closet of the school’s art room. They told her mother later that the bleeding was so severe they struggled to find a pulse.
She didn’t get to see Sarah until 4:45 p.m., after her daughter was out of surgery, during which doctors stemmed the bleeding in two major veins in her neck. It was too risky to repair one of the veins — the chance for a deadly infection was high — so they tied it off. The blood rerouted.
Sarah was unconscious, but alive.
Sarah didn’t wake up until Sunday, two and a half days after the shooting. Her parents — Lopez separated from her daughters’ father four years ago — were with her in the ICU when she came to, groggy but wanting to talk. She couldn’t speak because of all the tubes, so they fetched a clipboard and marker for her to write a message.
“I don’t know where my phone is,” Sarah wrote. Her parents laughed, relieved.
Teens are notoriously phone-obsessed, but Sarah’s had an extra layer of meaning: She’d chosen a new iPhone instead of a quinceañera the year before.
Lopez told Sarah they knew where her phone was: The FBI had taken it. It was covered in blood.
Sarah nodded and went back to sleep.
Doctors told Lopez they found evidence of at least two gunshot wounds around Sarah’s shoulder. She was hit on her left side, shattering her shoulder and her jaw. She had a collapsed lung.
During the shooting, other students had called Sarah to run into a supply closet with them. She was the last one in. But the shooter knew they were in there. He aimed through a glass panel in the door and shot inside. Two boys next to Sarah in the closet were killed.
When Sarah was hit, she played dead, then passed out. Another boy, Trenton Beazley, wrapped a jacket around Sarah’s wounds. His actions stopped her from bleeding out, Lopez said.
On May 24, Sarah had jaw surgery. Her teeth will be wired for five more weeks, and she’ll be on a liquid-only diet until then. She can whisper.
But she stopped needing the oxygen mask, and she has started physical therapy.
Her shoulder needs a complete replacement, her mother said. Doctors hoped to do the surgery next week, but blood continues to drain from her shoulder and it’s too risky.
The bone doctor told Lopez on Tuesday that he doesn’t think he has enough experience with pediatric surgery to handle the complicated procedure. Instead, a doctor from Houston has agreed to do it. They’ll meet once he returns from an overseas holiday next week.
Right now Sarah’s left arm is just “dangling,” her mother said, “there’s no bone to support it.” The nurses encourage Sarah to get up and move around, even though just getting up to use the bathroom makes her cry in pain.
That is the hardest thing for her mother. “It just breaks my heart to see her in so much pain,” she said. “I’m fine until I see her crying. And then I can’t stand it.”
On Thursday, Lopez went to an event with President Donald Trump. Sarah wanted to come but couldn’t leave the hospital, so her mother went instead. “It was exciting but I was kinda disappointed that he didn’t attempt to shake all the parents’ hands,” Lopez said. Parents and students spoke with the president about mental health, the possibility of introducing a school uniform, and tighter security checks at the school.
On Friday, the hospital wanted to release Sarah, but Lopez begged them to let her stay, because the movable hospital bed can limit Sarah’s pain. A caseworker told her they won’t send a hospital bed home with her.
Suzannah has been sleeping at the hospital with her little sister every night. “They weren’t that close. They had different sets of friends, but now she just wants to be with her sister all the time,” Lopez said.
Suzannah was also there when pop star Justin Timberlake dropped by. He invited Sarah to the afterparty for his next Houston concert in January. J.J. Watt, a defensive end for the Houston Texans, visited just a few days after the shooting. Friends and teachers have visited constantly.
Most nights, Lopez doesn’t get home from the hospital until 11 p.m. She updates friends and family on Sarah’s conditions every night via her Facebook page. A GoFundMe has raised more than $20,000 so far, and on Monday Lopez is meeting with her attorney to arrange a trust fund for Sarah’s future medical costs.
Sarah is going to need more surgeries in future, including plastic surgery — “If you see it, you would understand,” said her mother — which her insurance doesn’t cover.
Lopez also separated from her husband, after three years of marriage, in the last week.
“My husband and I split over all the stress of this situation,” she said. Having both Sarah’s father and her husband around at the same time took its toll.
“I need to give my daughter all my time. I can’t deal with that right now,” she said. “Maybe I do love him, but I love my daughter more.”
Lopez is trying to be proactive about making sure she and her daughters are OK, even though she knows they won’t be for a while.
“I feel like my mouth is dry the whole time,” said Lopez.
She’s scheduled counseling sessions for herself, Suzannah, and Sarah. The family is religious, she said: “Our faith in God is the only thing that kept us strong. The lord is our strength and we’re leaning on him.”
But the fear during those three hours when she didn’t know if Sarah was alive still haunts her.
On Tuesday, Santa Fe High School reopened for students. Police and media swarmed the town again. Lopez was brushing her teeth, getting ready to take Suzannah to school, when she heard helicopters again above the house.
“It was bringing back memories of when I was in front of the school and could hear the helicopters landing and going and my daughter was in one of them. But I didn’t know. Now I know she was in one of them and she was awake and told them her name and everything,” Lopez said.
She understands that the authorities were busy but wishes desperately that they had alerted her sooner.
“I could have been at the hospital the whole time,” said Lopez. “I just didn’t know. I couldn’t do anything.”