In Newtown, 20 Little Angels and Six Uncommonly Brave Adults

‘They were wearing cute kid stuff,’ the state’s chief medical examiner tells Michael Daly of the school-shooting victims. He spoke with a disbelief shared by nearly everyone in Newtown.

12.16.12 9:45 AM ET

The people from the medical examiner’s office worked past midnight in a prefabricated shelter outside Sandy Hook Elementary School, taking facial photos of the 20 dead children one by one.

Charlotte Bacon. Daniel Barden. Olivia Engel. Josephine Gay. Ana M. Marquez-Greene. Dylan Hockley. Madeleine F. Hsu. Catherine V. Hubbard. Chase Kowalski. Jesse Lewis. James Mattioli. Grace McDonnell. Emilie Parker. Jack Pinto. Noah Pozner. Caroline Previdi. Jessica Rekos.  Avielle Richman. Benjamin Wheeler. Allison N. Wyatt.

The kids were still dressed in the clothes they had worn when they headed off to school that morning.

“They were wearing cute kid stuff,” the state’s chief medical examiner, Dr. H. Wayne Carver II, said. “They were first graders.”

Around 1 a.m., the children were transported to Carver’s main facility in Farmingdale. There, Carver was joined by four other doctors, 10 technicians, and a college student on the first day of an internship.

Carver did seven autopsies himself. He noted that each child had been shot multiple times with a high-powered rifle, suffering between 3 and 11 devastating wounds—the kind usually seen in war, but also the kind inflicted by a similar weapon in the movie-theater shooting in Aurora in July.

Only these victims were children: 12 girls and 8 boys, aged 6 and 7. One had just celebrated her 7th birthday on Tuesday. They all now share an obscenely early death day. The cause of death for each was officially recorded as gunshot wounds.

“I believe everybody was hit more than once,” Carver says.

None of the dead children had yet been seen by their parents; the officials were using photos for the identifications. Parents who wanted to see and touch their child—and that included almost all of them—would only be able to do so after a funeral director collected the body.

Once the children were done, Carver and his staff moved on to the six adults who worked at the school: principal Dawn Hochsprung, psychologist Mary Sherlach, and four teachers—one a substitute whose regular job was as a barista at a Starbucks in Danbury.

All of them would no doubt have wanted the post-mortems to be done in this order so the children would be released to the families as quickly as possible. Even in death, these teachers were putting the kids first.

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The women had shown uncommon courage in their final moments. One murdered teacher, 27-year-old Vicki Soto, had often talked about how much she loved the 16 students she called “my angels.” She gave them the ultimate lesson in the greatest love when the gunman burst in—she died shielding them with her body.

As the kids then bolted for safety, 6-year-old Aidan Licata paused to hold the door for a little girl. He then waited to make sure one of his buddies made it out before he followed.

All of Soto’s angels survived. And on Saturday morning, the heroic boy’s father was able to report that Aidan was seated in front of the television as if nothing had happened.

“He’s watching Ninja Turtles,” the father, Robert Licata, reported. ‘We’re trying to take it moment by moment.”

The father gave thanks for Soto’s bravery and said that all the kids in the class had been very brave. He could not yet begin to gauge the effects of what this boy now watching a cartoon had seen 24 hours before.

“He watched his teacher get shot,” the father said.

Licata spoke with the disbelief shared by seemingly everybody in this town. Nicholas Clarke, an 18 year-old senior at Newtown High School, where the gunman was in the class of 2010, noted that one of the units in the sociology course there is a detailed study of school shootings, “Columbine, Virginia Tech,” Clarke said.

Clarke did not know if Lanza ever took the course. He did say that his teacher told them that Sandy Hook and the surrounding town of Newtown was just the kind suburban enclave where such massacres tend to happen.

“Our teacher said Newtown is the perfect place,” he noted.

But this school shooting involved kids 7 and younger, and it had happened in his hometown.

“Here?” he asked, incredulous.

Clarke was standing by a side road marked with a sign reading, “Sandy Hook School Visitors Welcome.” People had begun leaving flowers and candles and stuffed animals at the base of the signpost. A 7-year-old named Sophia Kobar left her very own pink stuffed elephant.

“It was her idea,” her mother said.

Spontaneous shrines often spring up after shootings in the nation’s tougher neighborhoods where guns have become a way of death. One that also included stuffed animals materialized after a 6-year-old named Aliyah Shell was killed by a stray bullet in March as her mother was braiding her hair in our president’s hometown of Chicago.

That death drew no comment from Obama. The death of 20 children did. He has even announced plans to come to a memorial there on Sunday, a visit preceded by two flights of helicopters, three Black Hawks, then four big Chinooks of the presidential advance team over the town on Saturday. We have yet to see if he will actually do something about guns.

A measure of what he is up against was on loud display a short drive from the massacre scene on Saturday afternoon at the Wooster Mountain State Park Cooperative Shooting Range in Danbury.

A day after 20 youngsters were shot to death, at least as many people were at the public firing range there, blasting away with a great variety of firearms. Their weapons included at least one rifle similar to the one used with such deadly effect at the school.

The manager of the range, a very nice gentleman named Dean Price, spoke over the gunfire, reporting that ATF agents had come by the night before to check his sign-in sheets to see if the accused gunman had ever practiced there. Price says he was greatly relieved when the agents did not find what has become the most hated of names, Adam Lanza.

“I would have been horrified,” Dean said amidst the shooting. “I love children.”

Nor did the check produce the name of the accused gunman’s mother, Nancy Lanza, though she is said to have been a “big, big gun fan.” Price suggested that people can always just practice in the woods.

As the enthusiasts on the range continued firing, Price allowed that he knew one of the murdered children, the 7-year-old son of a friend. He said he had seen the boy two months ago.

“Nice kid,” Price said.

Price had called the boy’s father Saturday morning.

“I didn’t want to say how sorry I was, because that goes without saying,” Price said.

Price’s voice thickened as he continued, the gunfire still crackling.

“I just said, ‘Listen, if I can ever do anything, let me know. Let me know and I’ll be there for you,’” Price recalled.

He then went to help those shooters who were done take down their riddled targets.