In Newtown, Conn., Saturday, shock ever so slowly started to give way to reflection and action, like the morning frost receding in the glare of the bright sun.
Even as details of Friday’s killings were still emerging, area residents were coming together to counsel and be counseled, to wipe away each other’s tears, to bow their heads in prayer, and to wrestle with the simple unanswerable question of why a young man would shatter their peaceful town with a deadly burst of ammunition aimed at their youngest.
“I’ve been here 25 years – and never afraid for nothing except speeding tickets,” says Anthony Paravalos, originally from Greece, as he repairs boots at Anthony’s Shoe Service in Newtown. Tears stream down his cheeks as he whispers about the families who won’t have a happy Christmas this year, and the tragedy of “kids so angry in their hearts,” in reference to shooter Adam Lanza. “I feel it inside,” he says, tapping his heart.
“You just don’t have those kind of violent things happen here, so it’s hard to fathom,” says Herb Rosenthal, the first selectman (Newtown’s mayor) from 1997 to 2007. He says he can’t help but think back to when the Columbine massacre occurred and everyone could only hope that something similar wouldn’t happen in their own town.
His wife, Michelle Rosenthal, teaches middle school in nearby Danbury, Conn. For teachers, this tragedy resonates almost as strongly as it does for parents. “It’s devastating,” she says. “We think of our students as our children sometimes.”
At Always Wendy’s nail salon, owner Wendy Mezzanotte clutches a coffee cup and says, “It was horrendous…. In the end I don’t know if we’re ever going to find out the rhyme or reason for the whole thing.”
At the town’s central flagpole, a giant flag hung at half-staff, and a stuffed dog and bouquet of flowers sat at the base. Other spontaneous memorials have sprung up in front of many shop windows, with candles and flowers sitting beneath homemade signs expressing love and sympathy.
The area around Sandy Hook Elementary has been blocked off as a crime scene under investigation.
Leaders of the local United Way and Newtown Savings Bank quickly set up a Sandy Hook School Support Fund to channel donations from around the world. Community leaders will decide how best to support the victims’ families, says Kim Morgan, CEO of United Way of Western Connecticut.
Offers of everything from free counseling to funeral caskets have been pouring into the local news website Patch.com, says Patch reporter Gary Jeanfaivre.
Volunteer crisis counselors are staffing two locations this weekend to assist grieving families or any member of the community in need of help.
At Newtown Youth and Family Services, counselors Saturday morning were “mentally preparing” as they organized materials on helping young people cope with trauma. Nearby, colorful beanbag chairs and stuffed animals awaited the children who would come in later in the day.
Many area residents have been seeking solace at prayer services.
At St. John’s Episcopal Church in the heart of town, a rooster crows next door as people gather for a noon service in the small stone church.
Before it starts, a local woman who attended Sandy Hook Elementary as a child gives an emotional plea for people to not ignore kids if they seem disconnected. “Change has to start now,” she says through sobs. “Let this be the last time.”
In the back pew, a boy lays his head on a woman’s lap as she weeps quietly. Another woman reads from the Bible, whispering prayers. Light filters in through small, square stained-glass windows.
Scriptural readings include this from the Book of Psalms: “I cry aloud to God … that He may hear me … I am so troubled that I cannot speak.”
The sermon by rector Mark Moore acknowledges that people are grappling with questions of senseless violence and what to do in the face of evil. He urges them to place their trust in God’s goodness and mercy: “We are all connected. When one hurts, we all hurt. When one rejoices, we all rejoice.”
He speaks of evil as “a choice. It does not come from God.” Christians, he says, can help defeat evil. “We can love each other more deeply … [and be] more determined to do good to those around us.”
After the service, Donna Benner, a teacher from nearby Danbury, Conn., says, “I’m praying for the victims and the perpetrator too. I think he’s mentally ill. I mean, everybody’s angry at him, but I’m praying for him as well.”
As a teacher of K-5 students, she says, “this could happen in my school. I just feel very vulnerable, very raw… We need to learn how to keep our children safe and make sure this never happens again.”
Without prompting, several local residents say gun laws need to change.
“It shouldn’t be that easy for someone to get a gun,” says Adriana Johnson, owner of Spa Naturelle. Even though she has heard that the shooter may have gotten his weapons from his mother’s home, she believes he could easily have gotten them elsewhere. “I come from Europe. Are there crimes there? Yes…. But it’s very, very seldom. It’s more controlled [when it comes to guns],” she says.
While some residents, especially those out and about with children, decline to talk to reporters, they seem to be handling the crush and clamor of worldwide media attention with incredible grace.
While dozens of reporters waited for a long-delayed press conference in the cold Saturday morning, a group of them surrounded a woman who agreed to talk about being in the school on Friday.
Maryann Jacob described working in the library and calling the office when she heard strange noises over the intercom. She said that although the door was locked in the area where she and some other staff and students were taking cover, they placed file cabinets against the door as an extra barrier. After speaking for several minutes she turned to a male companion for a hug, hiding her face as she was overcome with emotion.
It will be “a difficult road ahead – weeks and months for families trying to piece their lives back together,” says Newtown resident and local United Way vice president Isabel Almeida. Although Newtown is spread out over miles of rolling hills in southwestern Connecticut, she says, “It has that close, small-town feel.”
“Everyone is very interconnected, either through their place of worship or their children’s school or the mom’s club,” she says. “This will have a ripple effect across the whole town.”