The Walmart store manager, Robert Evans, was taking a break outside when he heard the first shots. He saw one person fall to the ground in the parking lot, then another. A group of girls on a soccer team who were collecting donations by the store’s front door started running and screaming.
Then Evans saw the gunman walking through the parking lot toward the store. He was wearing ear protectors and held a military-style rifle, pointed upward as he reloaded.
“His face was determined,” Evans said of the man accused of killing 22 people there.
At that point, Evans said in a telephone interview, his training kicked in. He ran into the store ahead of the man with the rifle, got on his two-way radio and yelled “Code Brown,” the company’s shorthand for an active shooter inside the store.
Like schools, places of worship and concert venues across the country, major retailers like Walmart have had to train their workers on how to survive and respond in an age of mass shootings.
Walmart said every employee at its thousands of locations across the country has been instructed in how to deal with active shooters, largely by watching training videos. But instinct and improvisation also took hold at Walmart Store No. 2201 on one of the busiest shopping days of the year.
As the sounds of shots popped through the store, Evans, who is 44 and a father of five, and other employees moved through the aisles, herding shoppers toward the exits at the back of the store.
One worker, Gilbert Serna, hustled shoppers, some in wheelchairs and others using oxygen tanks, into the empty steel shipping containers behind the store. He said he was able to corral more than 100 people out of the exits.
Other employees pressed towels from the store’s automotive center into the hole where a bullet had pierced one man’s back. A shopper loaded wounded people into the back of his pickup truck and drove them to the paramedics who were setting up on one side of the store.
Serna, 36, said he was stocking laundry detergent when the shots started. “I heard this panicked voice say ‘Code Brown,’ ” he recalled. “Then it registered, and I said, ‘Everyone run, there is an active shooter.’ ”
Two store employees were wounded: A cashier, who was shot and underwent surgery but whose injuries were not life-threatening, and a greeter at the front entrance, whose finger was grazed by a bullet. Among the dead was the teenage son of a worker at a different Walmart in El Paso.
Employees at the Cielo Vista store say they looked out for their customers and for one another, and, in the days since the shooting, have formed an informal support network. Some have shown up to memorials in their navy blue Walmart vests. Employees at another nearby store made makeshift ribbons to attach to their uniforms. And many employees have changed their Facebook profile pictures to a Walmart logo with a black ribbon.
Doug McMillon, Walmart’s chief executive, met with the workers in El Paso last week, praising them for their bravery and offering support. McMillon has faced calls for the chain to stop selling guns in the wake of the massacre, as well as the fatal shooting last week of two employees at a Walmart in Southaven, Mississippi.
Walmart no longer sells military-style rifles or handguns. But it still sells more firearms of other types than any other retailer.
“We will work to understand the many important issues that arise from El Paso and Southaven, as well as those that have been raised in the broader national discussion around gun violence,” McMillon said in a letter to all employees last Tuesday. “We will be thoughtful and deliberate in our responses.”
Evans, the manager, who grew up in a large family in El Paso, said he tried to make the Cielo Vista store welcoming to everyone, including the many shoppers who stream across the border from Mexico in search of discounts. Now it is a crime scene under FBI control, and the store is closed until further notice.
After the gunman was apprehended, Evans scrambled to restrain the chaos and direct his staff to help anyone who needed it. There was a badly injured couple in their car in the parking lot, he said. Bullets had shattered the car windows and struck the woman in the face and the blood-covered man somewhere in his body. Evans recalled seeing that one of the adults who had been standing with the girls’ soccer team had been shot and was lying on the ground.
He stayed at the store until 9:30 that night, gave a statement to police and then went home. His wife, parents, children and sister had all gathered to greet him.
“We just sat there for awhile, and we talked through the day,” he said.