EL PASO, Texas -- An ominous cloud of white gun smoke, bloody police boot prints and an empty baby carrier on the body of Jordan Anchondo are images that will forever live in Jamie’s mind.
She can still hear the agonizing cries of men, women and children who had just seen their loved ones and complete strangers gunned down – including a heart wrenching “Noooo!” from Octavio Ramiro Lizarde, whose nephew, Javier Amir Rodriguez, was among those killed in the Aug. 3, 2019, mass shooting in El Paso.
Other things, she doesn’t remember so clearly. Like how she managed to crawl – her very pregnant belly at times touching the floor – from the teller counter to the vault room at First Convenience Bank inside the Walmart as gunshots rang out. Or how long she was locked inside that room before hearing police shout, “Anybody there?” after the shooting stopped.
“I’m dead. I’m going to die,” Jamie recalled thinking amid the chaos, believing the shooter was there to rob the bank. “Me and my baby are going to die.”
Jamie was 23, nearly nine months pregnant and a personal banker at First Convenience helping Anchondo with a transaction when a customer at the store’s cash registers nearby screamed, “Oh my God, he’s shooting!”
That alleged gunman, Patrick Crusius, then 21, is charged with more than 90 federal crimes alongside state capital murder charges. He allegedly drove some 650 miles to stop what he, in a manifesto, called “the Hispanic invasion” of Texas, killing 23 people and injuring dozens more. The FBI has classified the mass shooting – among the deadliest in recent U.S. history – as a domestic terrorist attack.
“I thought I was going to cry. But I feel at peace,” Jamie said last week while at the El Paso County Healing Garden memorial at Ascarate Park. It was her first time visiting a memorial or attending any vigil since the shooting.
Now 26 and a mom of two boys with her boyfriend, Alex, Jamie asked her family’s full names not be used to protect their privacy.
Jamie is speaking out publicly for the first time. Not only had she not been ready to tell her story, she said, but the few people who knew she survived the shooting had never really asked much about that day.
“I think people were being respectful or just didn’t know what to say or what to ask,” she said.
A normal El Paso day
That Saturday morning, Jamie got ready for work at First Convenience Bank, a job she had held for 2 ½ years, as she did any other day. She put on her blue jeans, a red polo work shirt and pink sneakers. She curled her long, brown hair and put on her makeup.
She gave her mother, whom she lived with at the time, an ordinary goodbye.
She arrived at the bank by 9:30 a.m., with temperatures reaching 90 degrees the morning of that busy back-to-school shopping day. The bank, at the front of the store near the produce section, opened its doors at 10. By then, a line of customers had formed outside.
Among them were the Anchondos: Andre, 23, and his wife of just under a year, Jordan, 24, along with their 2-month-old baby boy, Paul Gilbert.
“I clearly remember Jordan had the baby in one of those Kangaroo carriers cradled in front of her,” Jamie said.
Just weeks away from giving birth, Jamie could no longer comfortably stand at the counter for long periods of time. She sat at the teller desk with the Anchondos, who were looking to obtain a loan for their new business.
“They were really, really nice to me so I was trying to help them as much as I could,” Jamie recalled. She related to them as young parents working to better their lives.
From where she sat, Jamie could see the Walmart cashiers. But it was what she heard that made her heart stop.
“It sounded like something heavy fell, like something fell hard and fast,” she said. “We all looked around to see what was going on, but couldn’t see anything. Never could I have imagined it was a shooting.”
The next thing she heard was a customer’s piercing shrill: “Oh my God, he’s shooting!”
Police reports indicate that the gunman cased the store, entering unarmed then walking out to retrieve his assault rifle. He returned to the store, opening fire even before he entered the building.
El Paso emergency dispatchers first received reports of an active shooter at 10:39 a.m.
“I remember hiding under the desk where I was sitting,” Jamie said. “Everybody in the teller line, my co-workers, they all hid under the counters.”
Several news reports state the Walmart store manager and other store employees ushered people to the back of the store so they could exit safely through the back doors.
Jamie had a different view.
“Suddenly everybody started running toward my manager’s office,” Jamie said, describing the office as having a glass facade, including two narrow glass doors.
One of the bank’s employees signaled Jamie and other workers into the bank’s vault room next to the manager’s office. The vault room had its own door – blue and made of heavy wood with a peephole in the middle – that could only be opened with a key from the outside.
“I started crawling. All I could think was that it was a bank robbery, that we were being robbed.”
On her hands and knees as she entered the vault room, she looked over her shoulder briefly.
“Lo último que vi fue al muchachito,” Jamie said in Spanish, her voice cracking as she recalled seeing Amir, “the young boy,” before going into the room.
“He was hiding under the desk but then ran toward the manager’s office,” Jamie said. “He was banging on the door.”
The youngest victim of the shooting, Amir was just 15 and about to start his sophomore year at Horizon High School. He had accompanied his uncle, Lizarde, then a 23-year-old construction worker, to the store that day. Lizarde was cashing his paycheck to buy school supplies and clothes for Amir – whom he considered his “ride or die,” the El Paso Times reported days after the shooting.
Jamie never saw the shooter. But she learned from First Convenience security officials who debriefed bank employees two days later that the gunman hid behind the coin-counting machine at the bank’s entrance. He pointed his weapon – a semiautomatic version of an AK-47 – toward the inside of the bank.
Inside the vault room
Five of the six bank employees huddled in the small vault room. The bank’s safe took up about a third of the room, which also had some shelves with office supplies, a computer desk, a separate workstation and a small metal safe used to hold money from the coin machine.
“Instinctively, we went to that room,” Jamie said. “If something happened, that’s where we’re trained to go.”
The sixth co-worker, the bank’s manager, made his way out of his office and toward the vault room and started knocking. Unsure what to do, one of the bank employees nervously slipped the key under the door to the manager.
“We were scared. What if we opened the door and the robber – the shooter – was there?” Jamie said.
She counted at least 10 shots fired. The federal indictment includes 45 counts of discharging a firearm in relation to the hate crimes.
Jamie pried the metal door off the smaller safe – it had already come loose previously – and held it against her belly to protect her unborn baby.
“We were there just holding hands. We were all crying. One of my co-workers was praying. He asked if it was OK that he prayed out loud. One was quietly calling 911.”
In the chaos, Jamie left her cell phone behind. But she was wearing her Apple Watch.
“I sent my mom a text: ‘Los Amo.’” She didn’t tell her what was happening.
Her mother, Lourdes, was home doing regular Saturday chores.
“I didn’t know what was happening,” Lourdes recounted in Spanish, thinking maybe her daughter was being emotional about her pregnancy or perhaps had had an argument with Alex. She responded with an emoji of a hug.
Jamie also texted Alex: “Don’t call my phone. They killed ppl. We are (hiding) in the back. Te amo.”
Alex had just come home from working the oil fields near Carlsbad, New Mexico, and was at his parents’ home when the texts came in. The texts were followed by a call, Jamie calmly whispering the few details she knew.
Alex picked up Lourdes. With Jamie still on the line, Lourdes heard her daughter say, “Me voy a morir. Nos van a matar.” (“I’m going to die. They’re going to kill us.”)
“I told her, ‘No, no you’re not. Trust in Jehovah,’” Lourdes said in Spanish. “Then I remember hearing the police saying, ‘Police! Police!’”
‘It’s really bad out here’
Police arrived on the scene at 10:45 a.m. – six minutes after the first call came in.
The shooting stopped and the commotion on the other side of the door grew quiet. Through a peephole, the bank employees saw police officers coming toward them.
“We heard a police officer say, ‘Anybody there?’ or something like that,” Jamie recalled. “They told us to wait and that they’d be right back.”
Jamie has no idea how long she was in the vault room with her co-workers. It felt like forever.
When police returned, a bank employee slid the key under the door to the officer.
“Just so you know, you might want to close your eyes because it’s really bad out here,” Jamie recalled an officer telling them.
Coming out of the dark
When the door opened, the first thing Jamie saw was a hovering haze of gun smoke. As she stepped out, she saw a body on the floor in a pool of blood.
“I think it was el muchachito,” Jamie said, referring to the “young boy” Amir. She didn’t see his face, but thought she recognized his body laying in a pool of blood. She paused and took a deep breath. “I think it was his uncle next to him screaming, ‘Noooo!’ in a desperate voice. I will never forget that.”
Lourdes and Alex were still on the call from the smart watch. They could hear the chaos and the officers’ instructions.
“I remember telling her, ‘Just don’t look at anything,’” Lourdes said. “‘Close your eyes and let the officers take you where they need to take you to be safe.’”
Jamie and her co-workers climbed on a desk chair and over the red teller counters with cream-colored countertops to get around the bodies and puddles of blood on the floor. She partially covered her eyes with her hands, peeking through her fingers just enough to follow the bloody boot prints of the officers guiding them out.
She vaguely remembers seeing Jordan on the floor, though the baby was no longer in the carrier she was wearing.
Reunited in silence
When they arrived at the scene, Lourdes turned to Alex. “Go find her,” she told him.
“By the glory of God, right at that moment, Alex says, ‘I see Jamie!’” Lourdes said.
At some point, she doesn’t quite remember, El Paso Fire Department paramedics pushed Jamie and the other bank employees out of Walmart on aluminum platform carts from Sam’s Club next door.
Sitting on the cart with two co-workers as they were rolled out, Jamie spotted Alex. He ran toward her and grabbed her hand. Without saying a word, he walked into Sam’s Club with her, the other three co-workers in the cart behind them.
First responders checked and treated people, many of whom were bleeding or vomiting as they sobbed uncontrollably and tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, to contact loved ones.
“I was in shock. The whole time I was like this,” Jamie said stone faced, staring motionless into the distance with her hand over her mouth agape. “I couldn’t understand what was happening.”
It would be several hours before Lourdes saw her daughter again. She chose to wait before calling her husband, Jaime, a truck driver who was on the road on the way home. She scrolled social media and saw conflicting news reports about what was happening, including that the shooter had been arrested just blocks away.
And she prayed.
“You have no idea how strong my faith is,” said Lourdes, a Jehovah’s Witness. “Only God helps us through these times. I put everything in His hands. As mortals, what else could we have done?”
It was shortly before 4 p.m. – the sun was shining bright and thermostats marked 102 degrees – when Jamie and Alex walked out of Sam’s Club. That’s when Lourdes was finally able to embrace her daughter – tighter and longer than ever before.
Neither recall crying, just trembling nervously. Words were unnecessary.
“There was nothing to say at that moment,” Lourdes said. “I felt angry that my daughter had to go through that. I was grateful she lived, but I was angry and heartbroken that so many others didn’t get their families back.”
Alex’s parents picked them all up and took them home. The rest is a blur, Jamie said, remembering just wanting to sleep. The next morning, she hesitantly turned on the TV in her bedroom.
“I didn’t break down until I saw Jordan on the news,” Jamie said, recalling pulling the blankets on her bed to her face to muffle her cries. “I had just been helping them. How? Why?”
And then there was baby Paul.
“When I got out, I didn’t see the baby,” Jamie said in a quivering voice as she wiped tears from her eyes. “That’s one of my biggest traumas.”
A transient day laborer who had been staying in a makeshift camp next to the Sam’s Club had taken the baby from the carrier on Jordan and to first responders on the scene, the El Paso Times reported months after the shooting.
Baby Paul, the youngest survivor, was reportedly grazed by a bullet and broke a few of his fingers – likely from his mother’s fall, according to news reports.
Two weeks after the shooting, Jamie had her first son, Julian. It was an intense, emotional 38-hour long labor that ended in her having to undergo a cesarean section. Holding her nearly 8-pound baby in her arms for the first time, she couldn’t help but think of Jordan and her baby.
Later at home, somewhere in her bedroom filled with baby items, she came across a new Kangaroo baby carrier.
“That was a trigger. I couldn’t even look at it because it reminded me of Jordan,” Jamie said. She never used it.
Jamie and Alex soon moved to an apartment, and months later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The pandemic was kind of a relief for Jamie, who hadn’t been able to go into a Walmart or other public places for months following the shooting. She now had an excuse to stay home and avoid places that might trigger her fear, her memories of that dreadful day.
When she had to go into a store, she immediately looked for the exits, for security guards, for places she might hide if she had to. She still does this.
Loud noises made her jumpy. She didn’t like being around people. Strangers made her nervous. And fireworks – well, just forget fireworks.
“When I’d be home alone and I would hear a loud noise, or when there would be people hanging out outside, I would run and hide,” Jamie said shyly. Asked where she would hide, she paused and whispered, “In the closet – with the baby.”
With the help of victims’ assistance funds, she and Alex were able to give a down payment on a new home – which has cameras throughout and a strong security system at every entrance.
Alex became a truck driver and began carrying a gun – which Jamie may not have approved of prior to the shooting.
For some time, she felt angry and fearful. So much so, those emotions at times overpowered the happiness she felt being a first-time mom. She didn’t want to let anyone come near her baby, and had to turn friends and family away at times.
“We survived this. Me and Julian. I wanted it to be just me and him,” she said. “I lived through this with him. Nobody else could or will ever understand.”
Aside from fear, Jamie sometimes feels the mental and emotional stress of survivor’s guilt.
She fondly remembers Margie Reckard, who often stopped at the bank’s coin machine with tins full of money. The 63-year-old gained notice when her widower, Antonio Basco, told Perches Funeral Home he feared no one would attend her funeral services. The funeral home put out a plea for help on social media. More than 3,000 strangers showed up.
But the ones she most often remembers are Amir, Jordan and Andre. She hurts knowing baby Paul is growing up without his parents.
“I think of them always.”
“I feel like enough time has passed for me to be OK,” said Jamie, who had her second son, Fabian, last year. She’s now a stay-at-home mom, and said she’s not sure when or if she’ll go back to work.
That’s in part because she fears Julian – her blond, blue-eyed first born – may be suffering because of the trauma she experienced and wants to be there for him as much as possible. He’s easily frightened, suffers from night terrors and has long uncontrollable crying spells. Doctors have told Jamie that it could all be attributed to her own trauma as maternal stress can transfer to a child in utero.
Lourdes is convinced of it: “He was also a victim and he’s still suffering. He’s going to carry this forever, too.”
She knows her daughter will be OK, although never the same.
“I just picture Jamie. How was she able to crawl, to drag herself to the door of that room? How is it she survived? It’s incomprehensible. I just have to believe it was God’s will,” Lourdes said.
More spiritual than religious, Jamie said she didn’t pray during the ordeal. But she found comfort in her co-worker’s prayer inside that vault room.
“I was listening to him, yse me hacía muy bonito (and I thought it was beautiful),” she said. “If I was going to die, it was nice that his prayer would be the last thing I heard.”