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Coroner says he'll never be the same after being called to the Uvalde shooting scene

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Eulalio Diaz Jr. got a life-changing call eight days ago. It was his turn to be the on-duty judge for traffic and small claims court in Uvalde, Texas. Now, the county is so small that the on-duty judge also acts as the coroner. And when a gunman massacred 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School, that job fell to Diaz.

NPR's Vanessa Romo spoke with him. Diaz says he will never be the same. And just a warning, this story contains descriptions of violence.

VANESSA ROMO, BYLINE: Eulalio Diaz was going about his business in his office at the Uvalde County Courthouse last week, just like normal. Then a Facebook alert popped up that said there was an active shooter at Robb Elementary School. Moments later, Diaz heard sirens. They wailed past his window and kept wailing for roughly 2 hours.

EULALIO DIAZ JR: It's just a small town. Rumors start kind of going around. People kept calling me, going, have they called you for anything? Do you know what's going on?

ROMO: And Diaz didn't until the district attorney called, asking him to go to the school.

DIAZ: And I was informed at that time that there was probably roughly 16 to 17 victims in the school, and most of them were children. So again, at that time, you cannot believe what you're hearing.

ROMO: Soon he found out it was even worse - 19 children and two teachers had been shot and killed. The case was so grisly and so unlike anything Diaz had ever faced, he called the chief medical examiner in San Antonio for help. While he waited for her to make the 80-some-mile drive to Uvalde, Diaz sat in his car and tried to steel himself.

DIAZ: And of course, you just - putting my head in the right frame of mind because you know it's going to be a tough scene.

ROMO: But nothing could have prepared him for what was waiting for him inside the school, the same school that he himself had attended as a child.

DIAZ: It's something you never want to see. It's a picture that is going to stay in my head forever, and that's where I'd like for it to stay.

ROMO: Diaz won't share anymore in order to spare others the burden. What he does say is that the process of identifying the children was gory and agonizing. The AR-15, the weapon the gunman used at Robb Elementary, is designed to blow targets apart. Unfortunately, Diaz has now seen firsthand what such a weapon does to small children.

DIAZ: The rangers, the police were getting with the families together - pictures, maybe what they were wearing.

ROMO: Diaz says those details were crucial to identifying the disfigured bodies. Diaz also had to confront another chilling discovery at Robb Elementary. Among the dead still lying on the floor was an old classmate of his, Irma Garcia. She's one of the two teachers killed that day.

DIAZ: She was one year younger than me through junior high and high school.

ROMO: Diaz also knew her husband, Joe Garcia. Years ago, they worked together at the only grocery store in town. Two days after his wife Irma was shot, Garcia died of a heart attack. When Diaz heard the news...

DIAZ: At that point, I was just devastated. Now I feel terrible for the family. It just keeps getting worse and worse.

ROMO: Back in his office a few days after the shooting, Diaz held his head in his hands at the end of another long day.

DIAZ: Right now, I still got some work to do. I'm going to try to ensure that the families, that everybody gets what they need. Then I'm going to seek some assistance and seek some help. Because even though we're professional and we take care of this, this affects you.

ROMO: Funerals for the children and the two teachers that Diaz helped identify continue. He says the medical examiner's report that will help provide a clearer picture of what happened during the massacre won't be available for another three months at least.

Vanessa Romo, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.