America is struggling this morning to come to terms with its worst ever school massacre after 26 people, including 20 young children, were killed by a gunman who opened fire at a Connecticut elementary school yesterday.
In all, 28 people died in the picturesque and normally tranquil community of Newtown yesterday, including 26 victims at the school and the gunman himself, widely reported to be 20-year-old Adam Lanza, a loner who some said suffered from a personality disorder and possibly Asperger’s Syndrome. The final victim appeared to be mother of the shooter, Nancy Lanza, whose body was later found at the home they shared near here.
Investigators by last night had put together a grim timeline of cruel butchery. After allegedly robbing his mother of her life, the shooter seemingly drove in her car to the Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, which lies some 65 miles of northeast from New York City. At around 9.30 am he burst into a kindergarten class and unleashed a deliberate and unremitting fusillade of bullets. He was armed with two automatic pistols. A semi-automatic rifle was later found in the car he had left inside. Some reports said the firearms had been registered to Nancy Lanza.
Police officials confirmed after several hours that 18 children were pronounced dead at the school, while 2 died after being moved to a local hospital. The six adults who perished at the school were teachers or administrators, Lt. Paul Vance of the Connecticut State Police, indicated to reporters.
Hours later, as a shaken nation looked on the quiet southern New England town with horror, flags flying from the US Capitol building and the White House in Washington DC were lowered to half-mast. A visibly distressed President Obama, pausing repeatedly to compose himself as he addressed the nation and at one point raising a finger to wipe a tear from the corner of his left eye, spoke of the tragic waste of young lives, with most of those dead “beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old.” “We’ve endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years. And each time I learn the news, I react not as a president, but as anybody else would as a parent. And that was especially true today,” he said.
Referring to the young victims, he added: “They had their entire lives ahead of them - birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own... 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.”
Meanwhile, heartbroken members of this community gathered for vigils or prayer services in churches and halls. Before a standing-room only congregation at the Saint Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Newtown last night, the pastor read out a letter of condolence from Pope Benedict XVI. “I ask God our father to console all those who mourn and to sustain the entire community with the spiritual strength which triumphs over violence by the power of forgiveness, hope and reconciling love,” it read.
Impossible to fathom, however, was the pain under the single roof of the small fire house adjacent to the school lst night where many of the parents of children were spending the night as they waited to see the bodies of their loved ones for the first time. While counselors were on hand, no amount of kindness can muffle the grief of a losing a child. In this place, there were mothers and fathers of 20 lost young ones.
While bombarded by questions from members of the community and the press, officials remained unwilling yesterday to confirm the names of the dead or indeed of the shooter. For a brief period, it was reported that the gunman had been Ryan Lanza, a 24-year-old living in New Jersey and working for accounting giant Ernst & Young. It later emerged, however, the massacre had been carried out by his younger brother, Adam. It emerged that after Ryan left home, Adam was left at home while his parent’s marriage splintered and finally ended in divorce. His father now lives in Stamford, Connecticut, where has a senior position with General Electric finance.
“It was carnage,” Brad Tefft, a warden at the Newtown United Methodist Church, told the Independent as he watched over members arriving for an evening of shared grief in its pews. “That’s what happened here.” The Governor of Connecticut, Dannel Malloy, was equally direct. “Evil visited this community today,” he said.
According to the official briefing, the shooting took place in one section of the school, encompassing two rooms. The local Hartford Courant newspaper, meanwhile, reported that Lanza had himself attended Sandy Hook, though again this was not verified by authorities.
The killer seemingly headed directly to the kindergarten class to wreak his savagery. Witnesses spoke of hearing gun fire that lasted minutes. The headmistress of the school, Dawn Hochsprung, rushed to the classroom upon hearing the cacophony where she was herself shot dead. Before leaving her office, however, she had the forethought to switch on the school’s loudspeaker system so that everyone else in the complex could hear what was going on and take cover. She became one of the heroes in an otherwise unremittingly dark day.
Some 600-700 pupils regularly attend the kindergarten-to-fourth-grade school located near a quiet stretch of suburban woodland in Newtown.
If residents here last night were bewildered to have had their lives punctured by so heinous a crime then the picture presented by their bucolic town goes some way to explain why. This is a mostly rural corner of one of the richest counties in America; many of its homeowners commute to the big city for work. Newtown itself boasts a wide main street lined by proud homes some guarded by Connecticut dry stone walls, all with wreaths on their doors for the season. The Sandy Hook part of town, where the school sits, has at its core a hamlet of colonial homes and small businesses strung along a tinkling brook. This is the New England that Norman Rockwell captured in his drawings – a place supposedly insulated from the hurly burly of the world beyond.
No longer. Christmas lights mostly remained on outside homes last night, but this morning, the wreaths are symbols not of festivity but instead of mourning, silent tributes to the 20 children who are now gone and the six adults whose only concern when they arrived for work yesterday morning was to care for them as they did every day.
No one here knew even how to articulate their feelings of horror as the sun began to set behind the modest, tree-covered hills of western Connecticut.
As the death toll quickly rose yesterday, shocked pupils described the scene as the killer, said to be dressed all in black, arrived on what was a sunny Friday morning. “I was in the gym and I heard a loud, like seven loud booms, and the gym teachers told us to go in the corner, so we all huddled,” one student told NBC Connecticut during its live broadcast. "And I kept hearing these booming noises. And we all … started crying.”
She added: “All the gym teachers told us to go into the office where no one could find us. So then a police officer came in and told us to run outside. So we did and we came in the firehouse and waited for our parents.”
The shooting is the latest such incident to hit America, with the number dead reported to be more than double those killed at Columbine high school in Colorado, where 13 people were killed in the infamous massacre in 1999. More recently, shootings have occurred in Colorado, which was hit by an attack at a midnight showing of the new Batman film, and a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. At Virginia Tech, a university, 32 people were left dead following a massacre by a student in 2007.
On each occasion, there have ritual rumblings about the need for greater gun control, but little meaningful action. Referring to the litany of tragedies, the President yesterday called for another effort in that direction. “As a country, we have been through this too many times... We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics,” he said.
The words will no doubt resonate with many in Newtown. For some, including parents who had been reunited with children who had survived, there were a few hours earlier yesterday when they thought they could feel relief. This might have been much worse. It was some hours before the true scale of the tragedy became clear.
As parents awaited their deceased loved ones at the fire station. Lt. Vance appealed to journalists to keep a respectful distance. “It is very, very difficult scene” in there, he said bluntly. “It is a very tragic scene”.