The door to the classroom where Uvalde gunman Salvador Ramos carried out his murderous rampage may have been unlocked the entire time while police officers waited 77 minutes for a key, according to a bombshell report.
Surveillance footage from inside Robb Elementary School shows that police officers responding to the 24 May mass shooting never even tried to open the door to the two connecting classrooms where the gunman was holed up with his victims.
Investigators may have assumed that the door had automatically locked – but that evidence now suggests it was open throughout the 77-minute delay now believed to have cost lives.
Classroom doors at the elementary school are designed to automatically lock when they are closed, meaning that entry is only possible using a key.
However, investigators believe there was a malfunction in the system that day.
It was this malfunction that is now thought to have enabled the gunman to enter the building in the first place.
The shocking revelation was first reported by the San Antonio Express-News on Sunday, which cited a law enforcement source who had seen the footage.
On Tuesday, Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety (TDPS), confirmed the version of events, testifying before a Senate committee that Ramos entered Robb Elementary School through an unlocked door at the west side of the building.
The door had been propped open with a rock by a teacher, said Mr McCraw.
However, the same teacher removed the rock and closed the door after she saw the gunman heading to the school and placed the building into lockdown.
The door should have automatically locked but – for an unclear reason – it did not do so.
“It was closed, but unlocked,” McCraw said, adding that Ramos was able to “walk straight through it”.
There was no way for the teacher to know if the door had automatically locked from the inside, he said.
“The only way to know that the door is unlocked is to go out, close the door, then try it,” he said.
Once inside the building, Ramos was able to open the door to one of the two adjoining classrooms and briefly enter, before exiting back into the hallway and reentering “seamlessly” once again – all without a key.
Surveillance footage from inside the corridor then reveals that no officers tried the door.
“I don’t believe based on the information we had right now that the door was ever secured,” said the TDPS director.
He added that – even if the door had been locked – there was still “no need to wait for a key” as officers could have breached the door with a tool or the windows.
This comes after officials previously blamed the delayed response on them being unable to get through the locked door and needing to wait for a key to get inside.
Uvalde School District police chief Pete Arredondo – who was in charge that day and has come under fire over his response to the mass shooting – broke his silence in an interview with The Texas Tribune last week, claiming the classroom was locked and that he spent much of the time trying to find the right keys to enter the room.
He said he had called for keys to the room and a custodian turned up with a large key ring, containing dozens of keys which he tried to use to enter.
Law enforcement outside the school on the day of the attack
However it has now emerged that the police chief was actually trying those keys out on other classrooms to find the master key – and not on the classroom where the gunman was holed up with his victims.
In total, law enforcement officers waited 77 minutes from the time the shooting started inside the school at 11.33am before a Border Patrol tactical unit stormed the classroom and shot Ramos dead at 12.50pm.
During that time, terrified students called 911 from inside the room at least seven times while desperate parents outside tried to storm the building themselves after growing irate with the police delay.
The significant time lapse may well have cost lives as it emerged that more than a dozen of the 33 children and three teachers trapped inside the two adjoining classrooms were still alive during that time.
One teacher died in an ambulance on the way to hospital while three of the children died after reaching hospitals.
Texas State Rep Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat whose district covers Uvalde, told Express-News that if the claims about the door being unlocked are found to be true then it is clear that lives were lost unnecessarily.
“If that’s true, we probably could have saved three or four extra children,” he said.
“The teacher possibly could have been saved. We know two kids had gunshot wounds that they bled out from. We know that one teacher was alive when they pulled her out and she died on the way to the hospital.”
At least three separate investigations have been launched into law enforcement’s handling of the situation, including by the Texas Rangers, the US Justice Department and a special committee of the Texas Legislature.
The city of Uvalde and its police department have stopped releasing information about the shooting to the public and are fighting public records requests made by several media organisations for the likes of 911 calls and bodycam footage.
The massacre at Uvalde came just 10 days after 10 Black people were shot dead by a self-proclaimed white supremacist in a grocery store in Buffalo, New York.
In both shootings, the 18-year-old suspects used semi-automatic rifles.
The recent killings have reignited calls for lawmakers to tighten gun regulations to stop more families from being torn apart by the nation’s growing numbers of mass shootings.
This week, a bipartisan group of senators said they had reached a deal on a package of narrow gun safety measures.
The deal includes expanding background checks for people aged 18 to 21 and more money for school safety and mental health resources.
However, it does not include the ban on assault weapons that many are calling for, after high-capacity rifles were used in the recent attacks to kill multiple people.