Slaughter at Sandy Hook: 'It was clear two classes were simply missing'

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A special report from inside the town where 27 lives were taken by yet another US mass killer

Sandy Hook, Connecticut

It's better to think about the courage of the grown-ups first; the carnage is too hard. They corralled their wards into cupboards, toilets and storage areas, telling them all was fine while privately praying that the awful clatter-clatter outside would stop. Doors were jammed shut with furniture, boys told to stand on toilets to make room.

The noise did finally end – it had sounded like cans falling on the floor Richie Wilford, seven, later told his father – and suddenly, like a blessing, it was police officers who were running through the elementary school here in Sandy Hook telling everyone to move out. Walk "very quickly" outside and to the fire station next door, they instructed.

The teachers still tried to smile. Maybe it was a drill, they said. Yet for some, escaping the school meant passing by the two classrooms where moments before a lone gunman, now known to be 20-year-old Adam Lanza and thought to have been a pupil here, had perpetrated the horror this nation is today struggling to comprehend. Close your eyes, the children were told, as they walked crocodile-fashion, hands on each other's shoulders, through a freshly made hell.

Parents, alerted by the emergency notification system, were by now streaming towards the school, tucked away in a wooded clearing above Sandy Hook, a division of the larger, mostly prosperous of township of Newtown, a classically pretty southern New England community set in slow-rising hills traced with Connecticut stone walls. The cliché of these tragedies – how could it have happened here? – is more apt than ever in a setting like this.

Something else we also say is "unimaginable", but we try to put ourselves in their shoes anyway. My daughter, one year younger than the shooter, went to a woodsy elementary school in this same Connecticut county, and I can't stop thinking about its lobby and her classroom, the paper dragons strung from the ceiling. What would go through your mind as traffic stopped you from getting there faster when you learnt a madman had paid a visit?

"There's no words," said Richard Wilford, describing rushing to the fire station to see if Richie was dead, injured or unscathed. "It's sheer terror, a sense of imminent danger, to get to your child and be there to protect him." Laura Phelps, another parent who has two children at the school aged six and nine, described the experience this way yesterday: "It was like reaching into your insides and pulling them out." Both survived, but the younger one lost friends.

It was chaotic at the fire station. Most parents found their loved ones. By then they knew that a gunman had opened fire in the school and there was word that the school's principal, Dawn Hochsprung, had died. Most left unaware of the enormity of what had happened – that 20 little ones, in two classes, had been gunned down, and six adults. The worst school shooting, putting aside the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007 that killed 32, the US has ever seen. They didn't know the gunman was dead, that earlier he had shot his mother at home.

Even library assistant Mary Ann Jacob was still uncertain at that time. She was in the small library when the first gunshots rang out. She hurried a group of children into a back storage room where she gave them pieces of paper and crayons to colour while their classmates were falling to whizzing bullets just two walls away. "The kids cosied up, and we waited," she told reporters yesterday. "When the police finally came, we were afraid to open the door."

When Ms Jacob got everyone to the fire station, she saw that staff members were already holding up placards to assemble each class into separate areas so roll calls could be taken. That is when the bottom fell from her stomach. It was clear to her that two classes were simply missing. Something truly dreadful had happened, even though most of the rest of the world didn't know it yet. The first to learn were those parents who weren't finding their babies.

"Unimaginable" applies to the pain of those parents. It's tough even to write about. Long after dark in Sandy Hook, most were still in the fire station receiving counselling and waiting to see the bodies of their lost ones, which still then lay in the school which remained a crime scene. Barricaded off at some distance, reporters could only wonder – when has so much agony been assembled under one single roof? And right there is another cliché – there is nothing worse in life than losing your own child. Here, in tiny, charming Sandy Hook, with its burbling brook, 20 were dead. By yesterday morning, officials said, the bodies had been removed from the school and taken to Newtown morgue.

And then there is the shooter, Lanza, dead at the scene seemingly by a self-inflicted wound. How do you fathom him? Just 20 years old, he was nerdy, skinny and a high achiever at school. He was a loner, who was remembered by some for enjoying a school tech club and computer games. His brother, Ryan Lanza, 24, who for a few hours was incorrectly identified by the media as the gunman, told investigators that he thought his brother suffered from a personality disorder. What could possibly drive someone to do this? To little children? Even President Obama had moisture in his eyes expressing his grief to the nation, and no wonder, because he is a father.

Dr H Wayne Carver, the chief medical examiner, said last night: "This is probably the worst I've seen and the worst that any of my colleagues have seen. This is a very devastating set of injuries." He confirmed all those who had died had been shot more than once with a rifle. Facial photographs of the victims were shown to their parents.

Lt Paul Vance, of the Connecticut state patrol, indicated last night that investigators had gleaned what he said was "very good evidence" about Lanza, we assume mostly at the home at 34 Yogananda Street that he had shared with his mother since his parents broke up and divorced a few years ago. This is not a down-at-heel section of Newtown. This and other adjacent streets still blazed on Friday night with Christmas lights and illuminated reindeers adorning the front lawns of million-dollar mini-mansions. No one, though, wanted to talk about the Lanza family or admit even to knowing them.

If there was a note left by the gunman we don't yet know about it. Investigators fanned out yesterday to local gun clubs to see if Lanza had enrolled at any, perhaps to train for his massacre. A Glock and a Sig Sauer, both pistols, and a .223-calibre Bushmaster rifle were found in the school and a fourth weapon outside the school.

We do know something about the timeline of his butchery. It seems – though not all the details are confirmed – he killed his mother early and, dressed in black trousers and a military vest, then stowed the weapons in her car and drove it to the school, about five miles away, where he forced his way in. He chose two classrooms and shot victims clinically. Take note that when all the victims were down there was only one injured person.

Ms Hochsprung was in her office with the school psychologist, Mary Sherlach, when it started. They ran to investigate and into the deadly blizzard of Lanza's bullets. Before leaving, Ms Hochsprung had flipped on the loudspeaker system at her desk so all the teachers would know a shooting was under way and to shelter the children.

By dusk, starry and cold, no one in Newtown was unaware any more. Their town is in the history books for the worst of reasons. Some residents drove to their respective churches to pray and feel a sense of togetherness. Brad Tefft, a warden at the Newtown United Methodist Church in Sandy Hook, had opened the doors even earlier for anyone who wanted to come by and just sit. "I am fairly numb right now," he said. "I still can't fathom it, that this would happen in a town like this. We are not New York City. This is a caring town that is all about our children."

Mary Ann Napier is a consultant who also runs a small summertime ice-cream parlour in an old clapboard house called Heaven a quarter of a mile from the school. Her eyes are red with crying when she and some friends gather at dusk for a moment of prayer in the small front room behind the shop where 26 small candles burn in the hearth, one for each victim. Making things more difficult was still not knowing which of her neighbours had lost children. Or, if you like, which of her happy, jabbering customers from August were gone. "I just don't know which one of them will not be coming in next year," she said, almost gasping under the emotional weight.

Mr Tefft says Christmas is more important now than ever. And Newtown, meanwhile, has its heroes to celebrate, who also include kindergarten teacher Kaitlin Roig who took her 14 pupils into a lavatory (and, yes, asked one boy to make room by standing on the toilet). "If they started crying, I would take their face and tell them, 'It's going to be OK.' I wanted that to be the last thing they heard, not the gunfire in the hall," she said of her ordeal.

By nightfall on Friday, Ms Roig was struggling to keep it together, her father Pat admitted in a phone conversation. "She is totally shocked. She is very emotional and we are hoping she will calm down." But his pride was clear. "She did what she had to do." In this truly awful story, we can be first stirred by the courage, not the evil.

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