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Survivors reunite for first time since Walmart mass shooting

Walmart survivors meet at park
Angela Kocherga

EL PASO --It’s been nearly a year since the August 3rd mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart, the deadliest attack targeting Latinos in modern U.S. history.  Alongside the horror of what happened that day, there were moments of heroism -- Shoppers risking their livesto help others escape from the gunman.  

On a sweltering summer day recently, Eduardo Castro, 72, met the woman who saved his life for the first time since their paths crossed when the gunman made his way through the store.

Castro could hardly wait to get out of the car he was riding in as he spotted Adria Gonzalez and her mother Agueda Ponce Torres in the parking lot of a park where they agreed to reunite.  He opens the door and steps out instead of waiting as someone retrieves his walker from the trunk of the car.

Conversation flows easily in Spanish, Castro’s preferred language. This is the first time he’s seen the pair since last year’s mass shooting.  A hot summer breeze blows through the trees. They wear masks and stand six feet apart because of COVID-19. They’re excited to see each other. Talk quickly turns to memories of that day, and the moment when they first heard the gunshots. 

“There goes another one, boom, boom, boom,” said Castro gesturing as if he was holding large rifle firing off rounds,” Gonzalez joins in adding her own sound of gunfire “boom, and then boom, and boom.” 

The day of the shooting,  Castro had crossed the border from Mexico, like thousands of others, to do some shopping at the Cielo Vista Walmart.  He like many in this binational region lives his life on both sides. He’s a legal U.S. resident of the U.S. but spends a lot of time in Ciudad Juarez with his wife and adult children. 

When the gunman entered the store, Gonzalez says she and her mother were debating which cut of beef to buy. Gonzalez, 38, quickly rushed from the meat department to the front of the store -- ushering dozens of shoppers to the back as the gunman advanced.  “Vamonos, vamonos, lets go, lets go, over here, over here. I yelled like crazy,” she recalls.

Eddie Castro was in the produce department. He heard Gonzalez.“When you yelled, I took off running after you,” he tells her.

Many of the shoppers that Saturday morning August 3rdwere older and had gone to Walmart to deposit or cash their monthly social security checks in the bank inside and pick up a few groceries. More than half of the 23 people killed were over 60. The oldest was a 90-year-old man. 

“I don’t know where I got the strength to run, run, run,” said Castro. Ponce Torres, 75,  tells him, “It’s the adrenaline of a human being in danger trying to survive.”

Castro says he saw the shooter kill an elderly couple, a man trying to protect his wife. If he had not followed Adria Gonzalez, he believes he would have ended up dead, like them.

“She’s an angel sent by God from heaven” he said.  “She was an angel for all of us.”

Tears fill their eyes, and for a moment the Castro and Gonzalez forget COVID-19 precautions, embrace and begin to sob. 

“I did what I had to do. I’m not a hero,” Gonzalez tells Castro as she hugs him.

Gonzalez’s mother -- quickly reminds them they must stand apart. She says, she’s not surprised her daughter flew to the aid of people during the shooting. 

“I taught my children to help others. If they see someone who has fallen, you have to lift them up,” says Ponce Torres.

She says, a year later, she still feels a lot of pain and mourns the lives cut short.  “Those souls are not at peace. That was not their time to die,” she explains.  

Castro says he still has trouble eating and sleeping. While he rarely used a walker before, now he says he needs it because he feels shaky and unsteady in certain situations.

All three are in therapy to cope with the trauma. They say they’re often onedgein stores. 

Gonzalez says her “therapy” includes renovating old homes, which she did part-time before the shooting. She recently turned one into a Harry Potter-themed Aribnb place, that serves as a “magical escape.” 

"Once you touch that door you're gonna feel magic. And then once you walk in, you're going to be, as if you were in the movie,” she says.

They agree the reunion helped them express pent up emotions. Castro says he rarely talks about the day of the attack. “I feel a release,” said Castro. 

“Talking to him, it was just taking everything out, how we have the similar emotional situations and how we feel about it after that morning of August 3rd.It’s that connection we have between us; it’s like I know him in another life,” says Gonzalez. 

Saving Castro was like helping an “abuelo,” a grandfather in this tight-knit border community where many see each other as family. 

“I saved your life because I saw you as if you were part of my family.  I want you to know I’ll always be there for you…” she tells him. 

After promising to stay in touch, the trio walk through the park to their cars. Gonzalez and her mother will head to their homes in El Paso. Castro will make his way to the Santa Fe international bridge, back to Ciudad Juarez. Getting into the car, Castro calls out to women.

Dios me los bendiga. Dios me los ayude.”  He asks God to help and bless them.

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