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Darkness comes to Sandy Hook

Updated 10:40 pm, Friday, December 14, 2012
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NEWTOWN -- It was the usual parade of kids passing through the doors of Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday morning.

There were backpacks of every hue, a few untied shoelaces, and 10 days before Christmas Eve, the wondrous anticipation of the holidays.

At a school where the front sign reads, "Visitors Welcome," there was a palpable eagerness for the day, that shared innocence of little children in a little school.

Across town, Adam Lanza, a 20-year-old Newtown man, had just shot and killed his mother at her home at 36 Yogananda St., police said. Afterward, Lanza slid behind the wheel of his mother's car and headed for Sandy Hook School, where she worked as a teacher's aide.

In the time it took Lanza to drive a few miles, the Sandy Hook kids tucked their backpacks into cubbies along the wall and sat at their desks, ready to learn, ready to shift to the carpet for a story.

But then, shortly after 9:30 a.m., the world, and that shared innocence, shattered forever at Sandy Hook School.

Police said Lanza opened fire on two classrooms connected by a bathroom and a blueprint of evil. The shooting was limited to one section of the school. And then, the massacre was over -- terribly over -- almost as quickly as it began.

When the awful counting finally stopped at Sandy Hook School, 20 children and six school employees were dead. And people around the world mourned them like they were their own.

Because they were.

As the 911 calls started flooding the Newtown Police Department, it became apparent this shooting was not an isolated incident, but rather a sweeping spray of death. It was simply too big and too heinous for one agency to handle.

The State Police answered the call for help. So did the FBI. So did ambulance crews from across the region, along with Newtown's bravest from the Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue Co. next door.

As police and teachers led kids out of school and across the driveway, first responders turned the firehouse into a staging area and a safe haven.

Police cars were already screaming toward Sandy Hook School with sirens drowning out the wails that were sure to follow on a day like this. The state police SWAT team arrived about 9:45 a.m.

An hour or so after the first shots rang out, the parents began arriving -- in frantic, frenetic waves on Riverside Road. They threw their cars into park on the side of the road, in front yards, anywhere they could find a place.

And they ran. With all their hearts.

There were mothers in baseball caps and fleece jackets. There were fathers in blue jeans and sweatshirts. All of them, without exception, ran toward the firehouse with one thing on their minds.

The safety of their children.

For some, it was the most glorious gift of their lives. For others, it was the worst kind of heartache, the kind of misery that crumples a parent in cruel, sobbing heaves.

About 10:30 a.m., police reported that the shooter -- first named as Ryan Lanza and later corrected to Adam Lanza -- was dead,

Shortly after 11:30 a.m., the state police SWAT team regrouped at the firehouse. Despite wearing camouflage from head to toe, these highly trained officers could not hide the look of horror on their faces.

At noon, a press conference was scheduled at Treadwell Park, just around the corner from Sandy Hook School. The police and elected officials didn't have much to say, but like the SWAT team members, their faces said it all.

Back at Yogananda Street, an upscale neighborhood in Sandy Hook with beautiful homes on large lots, a black armored truck with SWAT stamped on the side rolled down the street about 2:30 p.m.

"I just happened to look out my window and I saw it," said Lee Shull, who lives on Charter Ridge Drive, the next street over from Yogananda. "I'm afraid to text friends who have young kids at the school to see if they're OK because you never know."

The aching ripples of this nightmare reached Washington, D.C., in no time. By midafternoon, President Barack Obama, the father of two daughters, addressed the nation.

"The majority of those who died today were children, beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old. They had their entire lives ahead of them: birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own," Obama told the world, pausing several times to collect words that don't exist.

Not now. Not ever.

Never mind that Obama was briefed about the shooting about 10 a.m. When something like this happens, all the time in the world can't digest it.

Shortly after 2 p.m., police said a body was discovered at 36 Yogananda St. An ambulance pulled underneath the yellow police tape soon after and didn't leave the neighborhood for nearly an hour.

Just after 3:30 p.m., Gov. Dannel P. Malloy joined local, state and federal officials at Treadwell Park with the police. Malloy gazed out into a parking lot full of TV trucks from across the Northeast with satellite dishes and fancy attennas pointed at the sky as if they were searching for answers, too.

There were also a handful of Spanish-speaking TV reporters doing live shots from the park, which is usually a place for swimming lessons, soccer games and parties underneath the big wooden pavilion.

Instead, Treadwell Park had suddenly become triage for everyone wondering why a man would carry guns into an elementary school and open fire.

State police spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance took several questions from the media, but he couldn't -- and often wouldn't -- release information that would compromise the investigation or the humanity accorded to the families of these victims.

Vance promised to hold another news conference an hour or so later and he did. The details were still scarce, but the magnitude of this tragedy continued to grow, even for seasoned law enforcement officers like Vance. "It's a horrific scene," Vance said. "We have never experienced anything like this."

As the sun fell behind the horizon, word spread through Newtown that a number of vigils were planned Friday night. Perhaps the largest and most visible was at St. Rose of Lima Church.

The police cars, the yellow tape, the weeping and remorse, all of it remained through the night and deep into so many hearts.

bkoonz@newstimes.com, 203-394-2957, @briankoonz