Sandy Hook, Connecticut: A Small Town Devastated

Sandy Hook, Connecticut, was a quiet village preparing for Christmas. Now shocked residents are struggling to cope with a national tragedy. Eliza Shapiro and Matthew Zeitlin report.

12.15.12 9:45 AM ET

Sandy Hook, Conn., where police say Adam Lanza walked into the local elementary school on Friday and opened fire, killing 20 kindergarten students and six adults before apparently turning the gun on himself, is a place for children.

“Kids are a big deal in this town,” says Ray Ruzek, the owner of Ice Cream Heaven, located in the center of the small village.

The drive into the central square, down a modest main road, is dotted with children’s stores. Fun Kids Consignments is next to Fun Kuts, a barber shop. The Toy Tree is a few storefronts down. On Halloween, children gather on Main Street, dressed up in costume as adults hand out 3,000 pieces of candy, said one local resident.

Now Sandy Hook will never be the same. The quiet, picturesque New England town had been preparing for Christmas—with a massive illuminated pine tree erected in the center of town—when the second-most fatal school shooting in American history broke out.

According to police reports, Lanza, 20, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound inside the school. Among the victims was his mother, Nancy Lanza, a teacher there, and principal Dawn Hochsprung. The 20 children were between the ages of 5 and 10. According to CNN, three guns found at the scene were legally purchased by Nancy Lanza.

Sandy Hook’s residents are reeling. Pastor Robert Weiss of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church says at least seven or eight of the children in his parish had been in the school when the gunman entered. “I baptized some of these children,” he said, breaking down in tears. “Some were getting ready for their First Communion this year.”

On Friday afternoon, the intersection leading up to the elementary school was a chaotic scene, with the road blocked by police and emergency vehicles. Dozens of reporters and TV cameras and crews clogged the area. A large NBC truck, apparently stuck, cut off traffic in both directions.

Sandy Hook’s youngest were shaken. Joey Coeliho, 18, grew up a few houses from Sandy Hook Elementary, where he went to school. “I saw my kindergarten teacher on the news getting hauled into an ambulance,” he said. “I didn’t even believe it at first.” Coeliho remembers the grade school as quiet and cozy. He remembers lining up single file every day to get on the school bus to bring him home.

“Hearing the news today was the worst feeling,” said Jordan Stofko, a seventh-grader at Newtown Middle School who also attended Sandy Hook Elementary. “It’s going to be an annual feeling from now on.”

Melisa Latisi, 23, grew up in Sandy Hook. She said she was in disbelief when her father called to tell her that there had been a shooting at the elementary school—a few doors down from The Villa, a family restaurant where she works as a waitress. “I didn’t think it was this Sandy Hook,” she said. “I thought it must be a Sandy Hook somewhere else in the country.”

After the shooting, the Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue Co. station nearby was transformed into a crisis center, first for students to escape from the school and then for their terrified parents.

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Around 3 p.m., Gov. Dan Malloy met with the parents who had been ushered into a separate lounge of the firehouse because their children were still missing. He told them that 20 children were confirmed dead. Pastor Weiss was there when the parents heard the news they had feared all day. “There was sobbing and yelling,” he said. “People were throwing themselves on the floor. One mother had an alarm go off on her phone saying it was time to take her boy to a Cub Scout meeting. Then she realized she couldn’t.”

Weiss said some parents were still holding out hope that somehow their missing children were only injured. Weiss, who had been in the firehouse consoling families throughout the day, said he struggled to explain the unexplainable. “How do you help a child walk into the front door of that school again?”

One mother of a missing child told him, “Everyone will be here for us now. But the day everyone goes home will be the hardest.”

“Two weeks before Christmas, 20 families just lost their joy,” said Weiss.

As the sun set on the firehouse and Christmas lights across the village were illuminated, law-enforcement officials called in sandwiches, donuts, and water for the families still inside. Extended family from across the country began to arrive on the scene as the evening wore on. Each family of a victim was assigned a state trooper. As family members began to trickle out of the firehouse, they were escorted by troopers and did not grant interviews to members of the media.

One of many evening prayer vigils was held at Newtown Methodist Church, a small white wooden building that also houses a preschool. Two church members stood outside the Church, embracing each mourner as they walked to the vigil.

Many of Sandy Hook’s own could not shake the feeling that their town had been blemished forever. “No one knew about our town,“ Coeliho said. “Now it’s all we’ll be remembered for.”