NEWTOWN, Conn. — It was a primal wail, born of the unimaginable suffering of parents who had just learned that their children were killed — ripped from this world at the very beginning of their lives when possibilities seem endless, dreams still include Santa Claus and bullets are the kind of things that exist only in cartoons.
“You hear it when people die,” said John Woodall, a psychiatrist who lives in Newtown, Conn., and was one of the many crisis counselors who offered their services to the families that gathered on Friday afternoon. “People were hoping against hope that their child was alive, that their neighbor’s child or their grandchild was alive.”
Instead, several hours after the first reports of shots fired in the Sandy Hook Elementary School at 9:30 a.m., the announcement came that 18 children and six adults were dead at the school, according to several people who were in the firehouse. Two more children died later at a hospital in neighboring Danbury, Conn. Authorities later said a female teacher who was shot in the foot was the lone surviving victim.
The news was the latest in a series of unthinkable revelations on what began as a typical mid-December day. By sundown, all the children who would be reunited with their parents had been accounted for. The list of the dead had been completed. And the town, described by several residents as a storybook New England community, was left reeling.
The death toll at the school of 26, plus the gunman, Adam Lanza, makes this the second-deadliest school shooting in the nation’s history, exceeded only by the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, which left 32 people plus the gunman dead. Lanza, who was described as having a personality disorder, also shot and killed his mother at their home, also in Newtown.
Everywhere in this quaint community, which had been decorated for the holiday season and host to tree lightings and Christmas carolers, there were signs of a normal day interrupted. The stores and restaurants in the old brick and Victorian buildings that line the main square were empty, but business owners taped handwritten signs to their doors that announced impromptu prayer gatherings or had heartfelt messages.
Parents and family members of the kindergarten-through-fourth-grade students at the 400- to 600-student school were told to pick up their children or wait for news at a firehouse down the street.
There, at the intersection of Sunnyview Terrace, a string of red and green Christmas lights twinkled along the peak of the roof, an incongruous sight as a swarm of reporters, some doing live reports in foreign languages, waited outside.
The families gathered in a dining room at the back of the low-slung building, where the town has held lobster bakes and community dances, said Woodall, whose wife once lived across the street.
There were murmured conversations as families waited for news. Some prayed in a back room, led by clergy from the town’s interfaith network. First responders worked feverishly to complete a list of the names of the dead.
Crisis counselors who were in the room described a scene of pandemonium when the announcement finally came.
“There was a fresh wave of grief,” said Pastor Kevin Merritt of Stepney Baptist Church nearby in Monroe, Conn. “It’s just hard, as parents, at that point, knowing that their child isn’t coming home.”
Merritt said the announcement was the first time many of the family members learned that their loved ones were dead.
Woodall, a veteran crisis counselor who has worked with families of 9/11 victims and international conflicts, had just returned from Uganda, where he was counseling former child soldiers.
“You don't expect to have to do this in your own hometown,” he said.
One woman, about 70 years old, was standing alone and shaking, Woodall said.
“You don’t need professional training,” he said. “You just hug her.”
Throughout the afternoon, people spanning several generations filed down the street in tears, flanked by firemen and police officers. A middle-age couple pushed through the crowd holding hands. A younger woman stopped about a hundred yards from the building and burst into sobs.
“I’m OK,” she said. “My son is OK. It’s just, I was helping. I held it together until I left.”
Several residents of the town and nearby communities came to witness the aftermath of what they described as an unthinkable event in their small town.
Some had attended the school or knew families whose children were students. Meri Rosco, who teaches a martial arts class in town, said she was looking for a mother who had left the martial arts class upset earlier in the day. One of the woman’s sons was still unaccounted for.
“It’s terrible,” Rosco said. “We just want to make sure he’s OK.”
Several local residents said they were having trouble processing how such awful news could hit so close to home.
“Your stomach drops,” said Kevin Foley, of neighboring Southbury, Conn. Like many at the scene, Foley said his first response was to call his daughter, 15.
“It’s like 9/11,” he said. “You want to get your kids. You want them with you. Now there are so many people without that hug.”
©2012 The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)
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