EL PASO, Texas – A crowd gathered at daybreak outside the entrance of the Cielo Vista Walmart. It’s been three months since customers were allowed inside their neighborhood store.
El Paso residents of all ages returned to the Walmart, where a horrific mass shooting took place on Aug. 3. Twenty-two people died in the parking lot and inside the Supercenter. Another two dozen were wounded in the massacre. As the store opened, multiple people were injured in a shooting at a Santa Clarita, California, high school.
An El Paso Strong banner was draped over the side the store and Walmart employees could be heard cheering inside the store. They clapped and greeted customers with a smile in their blue vests, handing out black El Paso Strong banners.
“I know it will be safe,” Larry Ramirez, a customer from El Paso said. “These people (employees) need to go on.”
‘I love this store’
Store manager Robert Evans, credited with saving lives during the shooting, stood in the front of the store, greeting customers and holding a painting from the makeshift memorial, gifted to him by a local artist.
He gave a hug to 86-year-old Emma Gandara, who lost her friend, Angelina Silva-Englisbee, in the shooting. She arrived an hour before the store opened, eager to see the familiar faces of store employees who know her by name.
“I love this store,” she said. “I’ve been here all the time, and everybody is so friendly. We really didn’t need a lot of security because El Paso is so safe.”
Jordan Flores of El Paso said he missed a lot of fundraising efforts and vigils after the shooting.
“Me just being here, it’s the least I could do,” he said.
He also bought a pair of gloves.
Sofia De Anda was visiting her hometown from Baltimore, buying a watch and Mexican candy she didn’t need.
“I hope the employees are OK,” she said.
Flores was wowed by the response from the Walmart employees.
“It was unbelievable, the amount of warmth and comfort from the employees and associates was awe-inspiring.”
Maria Ortiz, 74, came to the store to shop for Christmas presents. She says she was sad about the people who lost their lives at store.
“Life goes on,” she said. “Everyone heals one way or another.”
Some elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, could not be at the reopening, but shared support on social media.
“My heart is with the Cielo Vista Walmart staff and El Pasoans today,” Escobar said on Twitter.
The doors opened to the public at 8:45 a.m., shortly after Evans, raised the United States flag, which has flown at half-staff atop the Cielo Vista Walmart store since the Aug. 3 shooting.
The mass shooting captured the nation’s attention as the gunman, with connections to white supremacy, allegedly drove to El Paso to target Hispanic shoppers.
The opening was carefully orchestrated by Walmart corporate employees. They restricted access to the entry of the store. They blocked coverage of a morning meeting of employees before the store opened.
Still, El Paso residents showed up to show their support.
Walmart CEO Doug McMillon was in store talking to employees, holding a customer’s baby.
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Employee’s 10-year-old daughter sang national anthem
The 220,000 square-foot store – one of the nation’s busiest Walmarts prior to the shooting – was gutted inside and completely renovated. The store’s exterior was given a new coat of mostly gray and white paint. Bright blue is painted behind the Walmart logo in the middle of the store, and also on the archways of the store’s two entrances.
Evans and Kirk Behrens, Walmart’s El Paso market manager, led a private, 7:30 a.m., opening ceremony for employees scheduled to work today. The store employs about 400 people.
The 10-year-old daughter of one of the employees sang the national anthem, and a religious leader will bless the store.
“This has been an uphill climb for them to overcome this. I’m going to thank them for their encouragement, for their dedication, (for) their work ethic, and their personal emotion about working still in the facility,” Evans said during a Wednesday interview inside the store.
“This is the rebuilding of overcoming this tragedy,” Evans said.
Walmart’s memorial to the victims and survivors of the shooting, called the Grand Candela, is under construction in the store’s parking lot. The 30-foot structure will have 22 individual aluminum arcs grouped into what will look like a large candle.
The memorial is to be completed in about a week, Garcia said. A dedication ceremony will be held after it is completed, she said.
The city of El Paso removed the makeshift shooting memorial that had been in place on a street behind the Walmart store since the Aug. 3 shooting. It grew to more than a block long as people left candles, posters, stuffed animals, paintings, and other items in remembrance of the shooting victims.
Follow Vic Kolenc on Twitter: @vickolenc
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