By Kim Bellware and Marissa J Lang
John Martinez awoke Thursday just before 10 a.m. to a text message from his younger brother: “Pray for tío Joe.”
Martinez, a 21-year-old student at Texas State University, said at first that he didn’t think anything was amiss. Of course his uncle needed prayers, he said. Joe Garcia had just lost his wife, the mother of his children, his life partner.
Irma Garcia, 48, was one of the two teachers slain in a shooting rampage at Robb Elementary School in the Garcias’ hometown of Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday.
Less than two hours after the morning text message, Martinez got a call from his family to tell him his uncle had died after being rushed to the hospital following an apparent heart attack.
Martinez texted his brother around noon. “This is so overwhelming.”
On Thursday, as Martinez began to fill in the details from his relatives, he said, he felt ill with grief.
Joe Garcia had just returned to the family’s home after venturing out to leave flowers at a memorial set up for the victims outside Robb Elementary School. He was in the kitchen, Martinez said, when he suddenly seized and fell over.
Martinez’s mother, who was at the house with the family, sprang into action, administering chest compressions until paramedics arrived to take him to the hospital. He died there.
“We’re all just in shock,” Martinez said.
Before his uncle’s death, Martinez told The Washington Post on Wednesday that his tia Irma had died a hero and that his family wanted her to be remembered as someone who sacrificed her life to protect her students.
“They weren’t just her students. Those were her kids, and she put her life on the line. She lost her life to protect them,” Martinez said. “That’s the type of person she was.”
On Thursday, he struggled to find the words to describe his aunt and uncle. Together, the couple had four children: Cristian, 23; Jose, 19; Lyliana, 15; and Alysandra, 12.
“Their family was an all-American family,” he said of his aunt, uncle and cousins. “They’re great people. The entire family, they’re all great people. They don’t deserve this.”
Joe and Irma Garcia’s love story stretched a quarter century, packed with barbecues, music, scenic country drives and the couple’s four children.
“I truly believe Joe died of a broken heart and losing the love of his life of more than 25 years was too much to bear,” Irma’s cousin, Debra Austin, wrote in an online fundraiser mounted in support of the Garcias’ four children.
Joe was a dedicated father, a leader at his job at the H-E-B grocery store and a doting husband, who adored the woman he met in high school and then married, Martinez said.
But this week, the Garcia home – typically the site of jubilant family gatherings, filling holiday meals and traditions like sharing grapes for luck at midnight on New Year’s Eve – was transformed into a monument to the pain of a family that in less than two days saw both parents perish.
“Our family is just in shambles right now,” Martinez said. “Nobody expected any of this. It’s heartbreaking.”