Attacked across two cities, the victims were linked by fate and an enraged gunman. They were white and Hispanic, mothers and police officers, letter carriers and retirees.
Lilia Aguilar had just picked up the birthday cake when she heard the gunshots. She had been running around town, getting supplies to celebrate her two daughters at a joint party later that day. She pulled up to a red light, and quickly ducked down in her car.
"Is somebody shooting at me?" she thought in disbelief.
Aguilar, 46, folded over in the confines of her Nissan Versa, hiding until all went quiet. But when she sat back up and patted her hair, she saw blood. A bullet had nicked her head, leaving her dazed, during a chaotic mass shooting spree in the West Texas cities of Midland and Odessa on Saturday.
The victims are a family of strangers — 32 men, women, children and teenagers — linked by fate and an enraged, mobile gunman. Seven of them were killed in the shooting; 25 were wounded. Some had lived in West Texas for years. Others were just visiting, from places as far as Florida and California. The youngest among them was a 17-month-old girl who survived but needed surgery, and a 15-year-old high school basketball star whose death came days after the start of a new academic year. They were white and Hispanic, mothers and police officers, letter carriers and retirees.
The spread-out and seemingly random nature of the shooting — carried out on the highways, streets and parking lots of two cities 30km apart — meant that the victims did not necessarily know one another, and in some cases, did not initially know that anyone else had been shot. They were struck on their way home from work, in their cars while stopped at red lights and at a car dealership while picking out a new truck.
And now, they are grieving in isolation: Unlike in other mass shootings, the gunman did not appear to target a single location or community. There is no central memorial site to bring supporters together in an attack that left behind more than a dozen crime scenes. Even patients recovering on the same hospital floor have not shared their stories with one another.
"I don't know who the other victims are — I haven't seen them," said Mark Gonzalez, who was among eight victims still being treated Tuesday at Medical Center Hospital in Odessa. "I haven't gotten out of the room."
Gonzalez, 38, had just finished work on an oil site Saturday and was driving home when he suddenly felt a thud. He thought he had gotten into a wreck, but when he glanced down, he saw that he had actually been shot in a leg.
He locked eyes with another driver, who was pointing a rifle at him from his car's window.
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"He was looking straight at me," Gonzalez recalled in an interview from his hospital bed.
Gonzalez slammed on the gas, his eyes on the rearview mirror to make sure the gunman was not following him. He thought he had been hit in a random road rage incident, and he pulled over to call 911.
But soon, he said, a police officer drove up and asked whether Gonzalez had heard gunshots. In fact, he told him, a bullet had sliced through his leg and hit his other ankle.
"The cop told us to get out of there," said Gonzalez, who was rushed off in an ambulance. That was when he knew: This was more than just road rage. There was an active shooter, who would go on to hijack a US Postal Service van, kill the letter carrier inside and continue his rampage until he slammed into a police vehicle outside a movie theatre in Odessa, where officers shot and killed him.
The violence left Gonzalez in the hospital, where he still has to have another surgery. He does not know how long his recovery will be, or when he will be able to go back to work in the oil fields of West Texas.
Indeed, if there was one thing that connected the victims to one another and to the gunman, it was perhaps oil.
Oil and energy are the economic and cultural lifeblood of West Texas. This is the land of so-called nodding donkeys, the bobbing pumpjacks that dot the flat, hot terrain. The gunman worked these same oil fields, and so did many of those he shot.
The gunman, Seth A. Ator, 36, worked as a truck driver in the Permian Basin oil fields, living in a shack-style building on the outskirts of Odessa. State troopers had tried to pull him over for a traffic violation Saturday on Interstate 20 in Midland County, but he fled and then led them on a high-speed chase.
He appeared to be disturbed that day for a multitude of reasons. He had been fired that morning from his trucking job for an oil-field services company. He called 911 afterward, and later made a ranting phone call to the FBI's national tip line, a phone number he had called several times in the past. During the shooting spree, he called 911 and admitted to dispatchers that he was the killer.
The authorities have said the firing that morning was only one of the issues that had upset him. "When he showed up to work, he was already enraged," Christopher H. Combs, the special agent in charge of the FBI's San Antonio office, said this week.
The authorities said that the gunman had previously failed a background check to buy a gun in Texas, and that he did not go through a background check to buy the AR-15-style rifle he used in the attack. ABC News reported Tuesday that he acquired the weapon through a private-sale loophole and was barred by law from buying or possessing a firearm because he was diagnosed as being mentally ill. A spokeswoman with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives declined to comment, saying only that the agency "does not plan to release any additional details" as it continues to investigate.
After a 2001 misdemeanour arrest in the Waco area in McLennan County, where he grew up, he was considered a suicide risk by the county sheriff's office and placed on a 15-minute suicide watch during his incarceration, according to sheriff's records.
Local, state and federal officials have not established a clear motive in the Odessa attack. One friend of the gunman's family said the shooter had a long history of mental problems and making racist comments.
Asked whether investigators believed that the gunman targeted Hispanics, a spokesman for the Odessa police said it remained under investigation.
Several Hispanics were among the victims in Saturday's attack, violence that unfolded just weeks after a man killed 22 people in an anti-Hispanic attack at a Walmart in El Paso. Federal officials in El Paso said they were treating that attack as domestic terrorism because it was designed to intimidate a civilian population.
The Midland-Odessa region has become increasingly Hispanic in recent years. Odessa is majority Hispanic, and the mayor of Midland, Jerry Morales, is the city's first Hispanic mayor.
But Morales said he did not believe that the gunman was seeking out Hispanics.
"He was in his vehicle moving at a very high rate of speed, and I don't see that he could have been able to target a Hispanic person with all of the commotion probably going on," the mayor said. Still, he added, "It's very hard to see our culture hit like that."
Aguilar, who works from her home in Odessa selling water systems, was too shaken up to drive after the shooting. She called her daughter and asked her to take her to a hospital, where she said she was given a shot for the cut on her head.
That night, she kept her plans to celebrate her daughters, who had recently turned 13 and 20. After her encounter with the bullet, there was nowhere else she wanted to be. "Life is too short," she said.
She took a photo of her girls smiling with the big marble cake she had picked up at Sam's Club just before the shooting.
But later that night, she could not sleep. She stayed up all night listening to a meditation app on her phone.
In the days since, she has processed what happened mostly by herself. She cries when people ask her how she is doing. She cries for the people who died. When she feels like she is going to start crying again, she cleans the house to keep herself busy.
"It's hard," she said. "My brain is working, working."
Written by: Sarah Mervosh and Manny Fernandez
Photographs by: Loren Elliot
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES