Newtown: A special town shattered by tragedy

As hundreds stand outside St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, which was filled to capacity, a couple embrace during a healing service held in for victims of an elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. A gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

December 14, 2012 8:13:54 PM PST
A vigil Friday night for the victims of a school massacre in western Connecticut brought out hundreds of community members, including some parents who were struggling with mixed emotions after their own children survived the massacre.

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Twenty-six candles - one for each of the victims - flickered on the altar Friday as hundreds of grief-stricken residents gathered for a vigil in memory of the children and staff killed in a shooting rampage at a school in this Connecticut town.

With the church filled to capacity, hundreds spilled outside, holding hands in circles in the cold night air and saying prayers. Others sang "Silent Night" or huddled near the windows of St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic church.

"Many of us today and in the coming days will rely on what we have been taught and what we believe, that there is faith for a reason," Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said at the vigil Mass.

The residents were gathered to mourn those whose lives were lost when a 20-year-old man killed his mother at their home, then descended on Sandy Hook Elementary School, opening fire as youngsters cowered in fear amid the sounds of gunshots and screams. Twenty children were among the 26 dead at the school.

The shooter, Adam Lanza, armed with at least two handguns, committed suicide, authorities said.

Even though there were 26 candles on the altar, Monsignor Robert Weiss said it was important to remember everyone who died, including Lanza and his mother.

"Ours is not to judge or to question," he told reporters after the service. "But we are really holding in our hearts especially the children and the staff of the school."

"These 20 children were just beautiful, beautiful children," Weiss said. "These 20 children lit up this community better than all these Christmas lights we have. ... There are a lot brighter stars up there tonight because of these kids."

Weiss said he spent much of the day trying to console those who had lost a child or other family member, adding that he had no answers for their questions of how something so horrible could happen.

But through their sorrow, some parents found solace in remembering their loved ones, he said. One father whose son was killed recalled how his boy had made his first soccer goal this year.

Some parents said they struggled with mixed emotions after their own children survived the massacre that took so many young lives.

After receiving word of the shooting, Tracy Hoekenga said she was paralyzed with fear for her two boys, fourth-grader C.J. and second-grader Matthew.

"I couldn't breathe. It's indescribable. For a half an hour, 45 minutes, I had no idea if my kids were OK," she said.

Matthew said a teacher ordered him and other students to their cubbies, and a police officer came and told them to line up and close their eyes.

"They said there could be bad stuff. So we closed our eyes and we went out. When we opened our eyes, we saw a lot of broken glass and blood on the ground," he said.

David Connors, whose triplets attend the school, said his children were told to hide in a closet during the lockdown.

"My son said he did hear some gunshots, as many as 10," he said. "The questions are starting to come out: 'Are we safe? Is the bad guy gone?'"

At the vigil, Newtown High School freshman Claudia Morris, 14, said students had gathered in the school hallways after the massacre, asking each other, "Are you all right? Are you all right?"

"No one has answers to why this happened," she said. "It just seems so unreal."

At the crossroads that marks the center of this three-century-old New England postcard town stands a flagpole that's a kind of barometer. Every day, says Susan Osborne White, who has lived here all her life, "it tells me which way the wind is blowing" - and she calls the local newspaper whenever the flag is lowered to half-staff, to ask why.

No one is asking that now as the flag forlornly hangs over a heartbroken, uncomprehending town of 27,000.

Along streets where every window twinkles with holiday candles, police sirens wailed Friday. Over horse pastures in what was until fairly recently a rural town, helicopters' rotors thudded. In shops, televisions set to news stations blared.

Gesturing at a TV image of the shooting scene behind him at Newtown Hardware, Kyle Watts gave a pained cry, "I know that place," and shook his head. He's 18 and had gone to Sandy Hook Elementary School, and yet he and others working at the store felt they hardly knew where they were.

"A week or two ago," he said in disbelief, "we had the Christmas tree lighting. There was singing."

In normal times, this is a place that marks the year with a community tree lighting, an endless Labor Day parade running past the Main Street flagpole in which it's said everyone is either a participant or spectator or both, an annual fund-raising lobster dinner at one of the five volunteer fire companies. It's a place where a benefactress, Mary Hawley, donated the classically designed town hall and the large, red-brick library, both set among towering oaks and maples. Part of one of the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn comedies was filmed on a town lake.

It's become a bedroom community for commuters to Manhattan and Connecticut's more toney coastal towns, but it has retained the rural character that was set in 1708 when the colonial assembly of Connecticut permitted 36 men to lay out a new town. Some houses date from that era, but there are typical modern subdivisions, too.

"It's still very much a small town in its heart. People really know each other," said Dan Cruson, the town's historian who has written a number of books about Newtown.

Sandy Hook is a section of town where the first grist mill was built along the rocky, rushing Pootatuck River. Other mills followed, and manufacturing grew in Sandy Hook. "It's always had its own identity," Cruson said, and in recent years it has been revitalized with smart restaurants and shops in Sandy Hook's center.

Every year, the local Lions Club raises thousands of dollars with a charity event along the river: Thousands of numbered yellow rubber ducks are sold for $5 each, then dumped in the swift current for a "race," the winner of which might get a big screen TV or a weekend in Manhattan 60 miles away.

In the crowd watching and cheering and at events like the fire department's lobster dinner, "everyone knows everyone. All of Sandy Hook is so tight," said Watts.

Maybe the school shooter was recognized when he entered and didn't seem a threat because he was known, he and others at the hardware store speculated. "You would never think ...," he said, leaving the thought incomplete.

The closeness has another dimension, of course.

"Everybody in town is going to help out. ... All of the churches are open tonight," said his co-worker Francis Oggeri, who's 22.

Scudder Smith agreed. "I was just down at the firehouse. Restaurants were sending in food," said Smith, publisher of the Newtown Bee, the weekly paper that has published since 1877.

He said Newtown is "getting bigger than the little country town that I grew up in. I've been here 77 years.... But it still has the feeling between neighbors that it always had."

The Bee had closed this week's edition - with front-page reports on the schools "performing at or above target," on vandalism at a cemetery - when the first word of the shooting came in.

"We've been putting everything on our website. We were the first ones down there," Smith said. "We've had calls from Turkey, all over Europe."

A police scanner alerted the newsroom, and reporter Shannon Hicks said, "I listened long enough to figure out where this was unfolding and headed out." Her photo of terrified children being led across a school parking lot appeared around the world.

Said Hicks: "It's a good town. We have our issues" - squabbling over the local budget, police news and the like - "but this is not the kind of thing that's supposed to be one of them."

Standing by the cluttered antique wooden desk of the publisher, she looked down sadly. "I've already heard comparisons to Columbine," she said.

Folks here want to tell about the town that was here for 300 years before Friday's attack.

At the Bee, they mention how Halloween brings out so many children to Main Street houses - one was made into a "princess castle" this year, another for years had a three-story web and giant spider in front - that the paper has used clickers and counted more than 2,000 kids some years.

They mention the homely, simple things that might counter the horror.

"We have two garden clubs, and they get along, they don't hate each other," said Susan White, who checks the flagpole every day.

She laughed but then grew more serious, mentioning that her father was on the school board that authorized the building of the Sandy Hook school. "That was my school," she said.

She recalled a ceremony marking an award her mother recently received for work on a 75-year-old scholarship fund in town. "It was a Norman Rockwell moment."

And was this a Norman Rockwell town?

"We've got our ups and downs, but we're a very real town. 'Norman Rockwell' sounds like we're perfect ... but we're not very different from any other town," she said.

And now, she added, "People will stick together. They have to."


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