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.