When Victoria Soto heard gunfire ricocheting off the normally quiet hallways of Sandy Hook Elementary School, she didn’t run and hide. Instead, the 27-year-old teacher gathered her first-grade class into the closet and bravely placed herself between the young children and Adam Lanza, the heavily-armed shooter.
While it’s not yet clear how exactly the tragedy unfolded, whether or not the young teacher is a hero is not under dispute.
On Tumblr, a friend of Soto’s shared unconfirmed details that she had gone to extraordinary lengths to protect her class from the bullets. “I talked to Vicki Tuesday and she told me that she loved her 16 angels and never wanted to let them go,” he wrote on Friday. “Today when the shooting started Vicki hid her kids in closets and when the gunman came into her room she told them the class was in gym. She was then murdered. Words can not express how heartbreaking and tragic this is. I will miss you dearly.”
Soto’s cousin echoed the sentiment. “The family received information she was found shielding her students in a closet,” her cousin, Jim Wiltsie told the New York Daily News. “I’m very proud to report she was a hero. I would expect nothing less from Vicki … she did what she was trained to do, but also what her heart told her to do.”
The U.K.’s Independent picked up the story, splashing Soto on the cover with the line “The Heroine of Sandy Hook.”
Pictures show a dark-haired young woman with a bright, constant smile. Her cousin said it had been “her life’s dream” to be a teacher.
Soto lived with her parents, two sisters, and a brother in Stratford, Conn., braving a chilly long-distance commute to Newtown every morning. “I’m so sad I won’t hear her car cranking up every morning,” George Henderson, the family’s next-door neighbor told the Daily News. He remembers a girl who was “so sweet” that she even shoveled his walk one day when his back hurt. Her mom, Donna, has been a nurse at Bridgeport Hospital for 30 years; her dad, Carlos, is a crane operator for the state’s Department of Transportation. Her father’s coworkers say Vicki was Carlos’s pride and joy. “He always talked about her. He loved her like you wouldn’t believe. Every time he spoke to her on the phone, he was cheerful.”
On Friday and Saturday, Soto’s sisters took to Twitter to express their grief and pay tribute to Vicki’s sacrifice. “Hug your loved ones an tell them how much you love them because you never know when you’ll see them again. Do this in honor of Vicki,” one wrote. Another tweeted: “vicki died today protecting her students in the shooting”
Soto’s family is still trying to process the loss of their daughter, but friends say learning of her heroism is helping them cope with the tragic news.
“Vicki was a great individual with a huge heart and put students first. Unfortunately, that is how she lost her life,” Wiltsie said. “I wanted people to know that she was a hero for what she did, and that she gets the recognition that she deserves.”