As church bells pealed and Sandy Hook residents on Sunday retreated to private church services to seek solace in the wake of the nation's worst-ever primary school shooting, hundreds of self-proclaimed "pilgrims" trudged stunned and red-eyed toward the massacre site to offer teddy bears and roses to the 20 first graders and six school staff who died Friday.
They included a former Marine who counseled kids in Iraq, a state school association officer, local teachers, and families from as far away as San Antonio, Texas. They were met by large lit letters at the village crossroads that read, "Faith. Hope. Love."
Their urge to congregate in support of the families of the children echoed a wave of global support and prayers that have poured into the town since a local 20-year-old named Adam Lanza forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday morning and killed 20 children at close range, and also shot six staffers trying to shield the children. As police closed in, Mr. Lanza, police say, shot himself with the assault-style rifle used in the attack.
"I'm here to do what I can do, offer up a prayer," said Dana Hyatt, a middle school teacher in East Haddam, Conn., who drove an hour to see the site. Mr. Hyatt said as a Marine he worked with children in Iraq and Germany.
"I just felt I needed to make a pilgrimage to show my support," said Frank Piazza from Trumbull, Conn., after laying flowers on one makeshift memorial.
A red-eyed man trudged quickly past a deflated Santa Claus street ornament and up the hill toward the school, holding a bouquet of roses. "Tragic day," he whispered.
Jim Roodhuyzen, a teacher at a nearby school, found himself out driving Sunday and was pulled as if by a magnet toward the shooting site memorial. Once he saw it, he fetched his wife, Sharon, to come, as well.
"I thought I'd processed this, but I hadn't," he said.
"We still can't comprehend that [this massacre] was possible," said Ms. Roodhuyzen through a torrent of tears. "This is not who we are, this is not who we ever will be."
The support pouring into this village on the nook of the Pootatuck River provided an antidote to fears raised by Ms. Roodhuyzen that their hometown would always be associated with inexplicable violence unleashed in their bucolic corner of New England.
Near the school, a row of Christmas trees became filled with teddy bears as people walked the half mile from the village center to the firehouse near the school that marked the end of public access.
Daniel Gregg, who works with high school principals and superintendents, brought a bouquet of white roses in an "act of solidarity."
"Somehow we've been faced with the ultimate extreme," he said.
President Obama, who summed up the national mood when he wiped tears from his face after pondering the senseless deaths of "beautiful children," planned to make his own pilgrimage to Sandy Hook Village on Sunday to meet with grieving families and address a town vigil at the high school Sunday evening.