A shooting near a school. No, at a school. Some hurt. No, dead. Including children.
Beginning with a 911 call at about 9:35 a.m. on Dec. 14, the information pouring out of Newtown, Conn., became more grim by the second.
The most staggering news took nearly the entire day to confirm: Twenty 1st graders—children just 6 and 7 years old—and six of their teachers and school leaders had been killed by a gunman so bent on destruction he shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School with a high-powered rifle, mowed down his victims in minutes, then committed suicide as police approached him.
“Call for everything,” first responders were heard saying to dispatchers via radio.
But they soon backed off. There were few people to save because, for most of the victims, it was already too late. Just two people injured by gunfire survived, and they will be key witnesses in the police investigation.
Stories of the heroism of teachers, Principal Dawn L. Hochsprung, the school psychologist, and other staff members quickly emerged in news accounts. Some sacrificed their lives in an attempt to thwart the shooter. Others, hearing an unfamiliar popping and banging over the school’s public-address system, sealed their young charges into restrooms and closets. They urged them to be quiet and told them they were loved, lest those be the final words they would hear.
Families gathered at a nearby firehouse, waiting as excruciating minutes—then hours—elapsed, for word of their children’s safety. Law-enforcement officials had the bleak chore of identifying 20 tiny and six adult bodies, each riddled with multiple wounds, and of accounting for every one of Sandy Hook’s 500 students before notifying parents that their child was, or wasn’t, among the dead.
Before all the victims had been identified, President Barack Obama spoke to the nation, wiping away a tear at one point, and, at another, pausing for more than 10 seconds to gather himself before going on.
“The majority of those who died today were children—beautiful, little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old. They had their entire lives ahead of them—birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own. Among the fallen were also teachers, men and women who devoted their lives to helping our children fulfill their dreams,” he said.
“So our hearts are broken today for the parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers of these little children, and for the families of the adults who were lost,” he continued. “Our hearts are broken for the parents of the survivors, as well, for as blessed as they are to have their children home tonight, they know that their children’s innocence has been torn away from them too early and there are no words that will ease their pain.”
Then he called for “meaningful action” to prevent similar violence. He was speaking from a press briefing room named in honor of James Brady, the White House press secretary who was shot and seriously wounded along with President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
“May God bless the memory of the victims,” President Obama said, “and, in the words of Scripture, heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds.”
Ultimately, Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy broke the news to families, whose numbers had dwindled to those of the victims. First responders, he said, seemed reluctant.
“I made the decision that—to have that go on any longer—was wrong,” he said in a press conference a few days later.
Within a day, a national debate over gun control had reignited. Arming teachers and other staff members, banning assault weapons, and improving mental-health services were in the national spotlight.
Then came the news stories describing the victims: the 7-year-old artist, the twin brother, the 6-year-old who was learning Portuguese from her dad, the devoted and demanding principal.
A week later, church bells rang out 26 times, once for each victim—less the shooter, Adam Lanza, 20, and his mother, Nancy, whom he had killed at their Newtown home before attacking the school. The district superintendent has said Mr. Lanza attended Sandy Hook at some point. But his motives are still unknown.
The old Sandy Hook school remains a shuttered crime scene, though many of the furnishings and materials have been shifted to the new Sandy Hook school, a loaner middle school rechristened with the same name in the neighboring town of Monroe. Some adjustments had to be made for littler children, who wouldn’t be able to reach the middle-school-size toilets, sinks, and desks.
Paper snowflakes, mailed in by the thousands from around the world at the request of the Connecticut PTSA, have turned the new school’s hallways into a winter wonderland—and could blanket the whole town, the organization said in calling off the project. The school’s former principal, Donna Pagé, cut short her retirement to help the school and its family find its way back to the rhythm of morning meetings, recess, reading, music, and fractions.
The 1st grade students have been regrouped into one class led by the school’s surviving 1st grade teacher.
The Newtown school system is offering mental-health services for those who need them, but the staff is encouraging as normal school days as possible for everyone.
“We obviously live in a state, we live in a country that wants to help,” said Connie Sullivan, a 3rd grade teacher at Sandy Hook who said she was uplifted by neighboring towns’ support in quickly setting up the new campus. “If this is what comes out of this, I hope it stays.”
Staff Writer Jaclyn Zubrzycki contributed to this article.
Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2013 edition of Education Week as At Sandy Hook, Grim Day Unfolds