Town mourns young lives extinguished too soon

The village of Newtown, Connecticut, looked festive last night. Christmas lights glowed on the houses and tidy lawns of its winding main street. The car park  of the local Catholic church appeared to glow from afar. It was only when you came close you saw it was lit by the glare of TV lights.

A few hundred metres down the hill the road into Sandy Hook Elementary School, affiliated with St Rose of Lima, was blocked by a row of police cars, their  lights flashing red and blue.

Inside the church, Monsignor Robert Weiss addressed a thousand townsfolk, telling them  there were 20 new saints in heaven – the children who had been shot dead that morning by Adam Lanza.

‘‘This was not the hand of God,’’ he told Fairfax Media after the ceremony, as his parishioners gathered and wept in the pews. ‘‘This was the act of a man with issues.’’

Police said Lanza was responsible for murdering 20 children and seven adults – including his mother – in the worst US shooting  since the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. Lanza’s body was also found at the school, taking the toll from the massacre to 28.

Monsignor Weiss had baptised many of the dead children and taught them all.

He took the call about 9.45am. Something was happening at the school. It took him only minutes to reach the volunteer firehouse near the school where the surviving teachers had herded the surviving children.

Some of them, it was reported, were covered in blood. They had been gathered into the corners of their rooms as the killing rampage,   which lasted only minutes, thundered around them.

Some described hearing shots – there were thought to be about  100 rounds fired – but younger children did not have the words. One described the sounds as ‘‘snaps’’; another thought it was like someone kicking a door. One boy spoke of the sound of footsteps of someone running fast.

By the time Monsignor Weiss arrived at the old brick firehouse around the corner  it was all over. At least 18 of the children, aged between five and 10, were already dead, two more were dead or dying.

Six adults, some  teachers, were dead. Nancy Lanza, Adam’s mother, was yet to be found dead in her nearby home. Adam, who was 20 years old, had apparently shot himself.

Monsignor Weiss told Fairfax Media  how he watched the teachers at the firehouse hold up signs with their class numbers on them as the children flooded in.

They took class rolls  and released them into the arms of their terrified, relieved parents while other parents watched and waited.

‘‘You could see them losing hope when the news came in and their children did not come back,’’ he said. ‘‘They were broken.’’
After the roll  call, the group of anxious parents shrank and the remaining parents were gently ushered to wait in a back room.

A police officer entered the room and put the parents’ worst fears into words: their children were gone. The wails that followed could be heard from outside.

Andrew Maingold, a 20-year-old local college student, was one of those huddling over a candle outside the packed church on Friday night as the temperature dipped below zero.

He had been woken by a volley of recorded calls to his mobile phone just after 9.30. His younger brother and sister still went to local schools, and family members were being notified that they were locked down.

He was not worried at first.

‘‘I went to school here and it was always getting locked down, locked down for a drill, locked down because someone was shooting at targets.’’

Then he heard someone had been shot in the foot.

Another local, a former volunteer firefighter,  heard the same thing but then when he saw firefighters weeping on television he knew something terrible had happened.

‘‘I said to my wife, ‘fire fighters don’t cry because someone was shot in the foot’.’’

The scope of the horror became clearer in the early afternoon. Adam had shot his mother and then entered the school with weapons including a civilian version of a military rifle – similar to that used in the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, in July this year – to kill her class.

Soon the President, Barack Obama, ordered that flags be lowered to half-mast. Then he tearfully addressed a grieving  nation.

‘‘Our hearts are broken today,’’ he said, explaining that the majority of those who died were children – beautiful, little kids between the ages of five and 10 years old.

‘‘They had their entire lives ahead of them – birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.’’

Perhaps most significantly he told the nation, ‘‘We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.’’

It is not yet clear what ‘‘meaningful action’’ means, but it is the clearest indication he is considering gun control  since he became President.

So powerful is the gun lobby that neither candidate mentioned gun control during the election, and after the July shootings Mr Obama spoke only of addressing the broader causes of violence.

By early afternoon though the debate had erupted across the nation, with gun advocates declaring, again, that gun policy should not be debated in the shadow of mass shootings, and those opposing them demanding policy change.

The  New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg, called for immediate restrictions on the availability of guns. The failed presidential candidate Mike Huckabee blamed violence on the removal of God from schools.
Monsignor Weiss kept the church  open overnight, with parishioners free to come and go under the  sign above the door that says, ‘‘Love one another’’.

with New York Times

This story Town mourns young lives extinguished too soon first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.