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“Where is my son?” The agonizing wait of parents searching for their children after Florida school shooting

Parents of students at Stoneman Douglas High School waited for hours to learn whether their children were safe, wounded or dead. After midnight, the FBI identified the dead.
15 Feb 2018 – 05:06 PM EST
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As the hours passed, the conference room at the Marriot Heron Bay hotel in Parkland emptied of students, leaving behind families who had not heard anything from their children. Crédito: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

PARKLAND, Fl – It was 4:30 pm when the school buses from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School started to arrive at the Marriott Heron Bay Hotel. They brought hundreds of students unharmed by the shooting at their school Wednesday just two hours earlier. 17 people had been killed.

Some parents already waited at the hotel, sent there by police to be reunited with their children. Hundreds of people ran around the complex, trying to find their relatives.

Policemen met the students as they got off the bus and wrote down their names, ages and dates of birth on hotel stationery. They asked if the students saw the shooting, and sent those who did to another room to be questioned by the FBI.

Over the first three hours, the high schoolers were reunited with relatives as they arrived, amid tight embraces and floods of tears.

Auri Tamayo found her son as he was in the middle of recalling the events. “I heard the shots and I knew immediately it was gunshots,” said her son, Julian Benavides, 14.

When he heard the shots, Benavides sent his mother a message. “Mom don't come to get me at school. Stay home. There are people with guns here.” Tamayo said that's when she started to cry.

“Thank God, my son. My God. Thank God you're OK,” she said as she embraced him and caressed his face in desbelief.

Not all the stories at the hotel had a happy ending. This is the account of those fateful hours.

7:30 pm | Translations to English, Spanish and Chinese

As the hours passed, the large conference hall started to empty, leaving behind the families who had yet to hear about their children. Anguished faces looked everywhere as relatives checked cell phones hundreds of times, hoping for fresh information.

Victoria Olvera was in the room looking for a missing friend, Alaina Petty, 14. She was worried because Petty's cell phone showed that it was inside the school at 7:30 pm.

“I just hope she ran away without her cell. I hope that's what it is,” Olvera said. “We don't know anything about her or Martin. There are people who say they saw them nearby at the time of the shooting.”

Martin was Martin Duque, 14, son of Mexican parents who waited almost in shock, in a corner of the conference hall, with their four other children aged 19 to 2. Martin is the third oldest, and his two older brothers, Miguel and Alex, stayed on their phones and translated into Spanish what little information authorities were doling out.

Another boy, eight years old, translated for a Chinese family that could only repeat a name: Peter Wang. The boy passed to police all the information the family gave him in Chinese.

8:00 pm | Prayer circles

The police presence started to diminish and Red Cross grief counselors and volunteers arrived to care for the anguished relatives.

Relatives of students still missing gathered in groups to wait for news. An African-American family formed a circle to pray, their voices echoed through the large and cold conference room.

A group of Venezuelans waiting for updates on Joaquin Oliver, 17, gathered around a table to recite the Catholic rosary. Just 10 feet away, a Jewish family formed a circle with several rabbis.

8:40 pm | Hope falls as Sgt. Rossman asks the families to email him photos of their children with their names and dates of birth. Authorities wanted to identify the bodies still at the scene.

The sense of desperation deepened and faces contorted more and more as time passed. Their hopes were reduced to the possibility that their children were wounded or unconscious at a hospital. But there were no news.

11:40 pm | "Where the fuck is my son?"

"Where the fuck is my son?," shouted Manuel Oliver to a sheriff guarding the conference hall at the Marriott Hotel. Suddently, everyone stopped talking and praying and turned their heads to Oliver. The large room, where dozens of families were waiting news about their loved ones, fell silent.

“Let us know what's happening. Let everyone know what's happening,” the father repeated as he paced back and forth.

Oliver had already prayed on his knees, sent out more than a dozen messages and waited more than 10 hours without news of his only son, Joaquin.

Ten minutes pass and Oliver keeps walking around the conference room looking for answers, thinking outloud.

“We need news soon,” he says.

12:02 am | "Go slowly and keep quiet"

Several Sheriff's officers enter the room, among them Sgt. Brown. “Please excuse the delay,” he says, adding that the waiting relatives are about to get informed about their children. He says each family will go into an adjacent room to speak with authorities who will give them information about their children.

“Please go slowly and keep silent,” Brown says.

Manuel Oliver explodes again. “It's been 10 hours!” he shouts at the policeman guarding the doorway and anyone else listening. Everybody looks into the distance, covers their mouth as their eyes turn red.

The tension in the room tightens. They will soon learn if their children are alive or dead.

12:18 am | List of victims is confirmed

A pair of agents walk into the conference room. Although they don't introduce themselves, the female agent wears a blue jacket with yellow letters in the back, FBI. The male agent has a shiny badge that flashes as he walks. The fatal victims list is complete and confirmed. From that moment, they would be calling the families one by one.

The FBI agents walk toward a family of about five people. The room falls silent and everyone looks at every move the relatives of that missing student make as they leave.

During that first hour, many families were led to the adjacent room. Once inside, the screams and cries of some pierced through the walls, while others didn't make a sound at all. Those still waiting to be called feared to be next.

As each anguished relative walked out, the rest cried and held hands, their heads. Some started to talk about other things.

Two Red Cross volunteers who had helped throughout the night sat silently on a luggage cart. There was nothing to be said.

01:07 am | More bad news

The FBI couple returns, now turned into torturers who come every 15 to 20 minutes, pick out a family and take them to the adjacent room to deliver the bad news.

Shouts and pounding are heard. A father taken into the room screams while the mother wails.

Most of the families still waiting have left the conference room and decided to sit in the hallway. The silence is making the screams and cries worse. Parents, siblings and friends cover their mouths. No one wants to go inside the adjacent room.

01:41 am | "Nooooo! Noooo!"

The FBI pair enters the conference room again and head for Manuel Oliver and his family. They fall silent. They talk for a few minutes and walk out. Minutes pass. No one shouts.

The Venezuelans are told Joaquin Oliver was killed in the shooting.

Six minutes later, an elderly woman begs a policeman by the door: “Please, can someone tell my sister what happened to her daughter. It's 2 in the morning. I know it. I know it. She's one of the victims.” The policeman listens and shakes his head.

02:05 am | The parents of Martin Duque walk out behind the FBI couple. Minutes later, their cries echo through the hall. “Nooooo! Noooo!” his father shouts as his mother shrieks. The relatives who waited outside hug each other and begin to sob.

03:00 am | Swimming scholar

The FBI calls in one of the last families, relatives of Nicholas Dworet, 17, son of Swedish citizens raised in the United States. His parents had waited all night along with fellow members of a swim team. Just three weeks ago, Dworet had won a swimming scholarship to the University of Indiana.

“This is tragic. He was a great kid, a leader, and we had just been celebrating his university scholarship,” said his swim coach. “We are devastated.”

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