‘Our hearts are broken today’

20 children among 27 dead in Connecticut school shooting

Associated Press photo

In this photo provided by the Newtown Bee and photographer Shannon Hicks, a police officer leads two women and a child from the school.

December 15, 2012 - Updated: 7:45 a.m.

NEWTOWN, Conn. – A man killed his mother at their home and then opened fire Friday inside an elementary school, massacring 26 people, including 20 children, as youngsters cowered in fear to the sound of gunshots reverberating through the building and screams echoing over the intercom.

The 20-year-old killer, carrying at least two handguns, committed suicide at the school, bringing the death toll to 28, authorities said.

The rampage, coming less than two weeks before Christmas, was the nation’s second-deadliest school shooting, exceeded only by the Virginia Tech massacre that claimed 33 lives in 2007.

“Our hearts are broken today,” a tearful President Barack Obama, struggling to maintain his composure, said at the White House. He called for “meaningful action” to prevent such shootings, saying, “As a country, we have been through this too many times.”

Police shed no light on the motive for the attack. The gunman, Adam Lanza, was believed to suffer from a personality disorder and lived with his mother, said a law enforcement official who was briefed on the investigation.

Panicked parents looking for their children raced to Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, a prosperous New England community of about 27,000 people 60 miles northeast of New York City. Police told youngsters at the kindergarten-through-fourth-grade school to close their eyes as they were led from the building so that they wouldn’t see the blood and broken glass.

Schoolchildren – some crying, others looking frightened – were escorted through a parking lot in a line, hands on each other’s shoulders.

Law enforcement officials said that Lanza killed his mother, Nancy Lanza, then drove to the school in her car with at least three guns, including a high-powered rifle that he apparently left in the back of the vehicle, and shot up two classrooms around 9:30 a.m.

A custodian ran through the halls, warning of a gunman on the loose, and someone switched on the intercom, alerting people in the building to the attack – and perhaps saving many lives – by letting them hear the hysteria going on in the school office, a teacher said. Teachers locked their doors and ordered children to huddle in a corner or hide in closets as shots echoed through the building.

Authorities gave no details on exactly how the attack unfolded, but police radio traffic indicated the shooting lasted only a few minutes. State police Lt. Paul Vance said officers arrived instantaneously, immediately entered the school, searched it completely and found Lanza dead.

In addition to the 20 children, six adults were killed at the school; the principal was believed to be among the dead. A woman who worked at Sandy Hook Elementary was wounded.

At least one parent said Lanza’s mother was a substitute teacher there. But her name did not appear on a staff list. And the law enforcement official said investigators were unable to establish any connection so far between her and the school.

Robert Licata said his 6-year-old son was in class when the gunman burst in and shot the teacher. “That’s when my son grabbed a bunch of his friends and ran out the door,” he said. “He was very brave. He waited for his friends.”

He said the shooter didn’t utter a word.

Stephen Delgiadice said his 8-year-old daughter heard two big bangs. Teachers told her to get in a corner, he said. “It’s alarming, especially in Newtown, Connecticut, which we always thought was the safest place in America,” he said. His daughter was uninjured.

Theodore Varga was in a meeting with other fourth-grade teachers when he heard the gunfire. He said someone had turned on the intercom so that “you could hear people in the office. You could hear the hysteria that was going on. I think whoever did that saved a lot of people. Everyone in the school was listening to the terror that was transpiring.”

Also, a custodian ran around, warning people there was someone with a gun, Varga said.

“He said, ‘Guys! Get down! Hide!’ ” Varga said. “So he was actually a hero.” The teacher said he did not know if the custodian survived.

Adam Lanza and his mother lived in a well-to-do part of Newtown where neighbors are doctors or hold white-collar positions at companies such as General Electric, Pepsi and IBM.

At least three guns were found – a Glock and a Sig Sauer, both pistols, inside the school, and a .223-caliber rifle in the back of a car, authorities said. A law enforcement official said some of the guns used in the attack may have belonged to Lanza’s mother, who had legally bought five weapons.

Authorities also recovered three other guns – a Henry repeating rifle, an Enfield rifle and a shotgun. It was not clear exactly where those weapons were found.

Obama’s comments on the tragedy amounted to one of the most outwardly emotional moments of his presidency.

“The majority of those who died were children – beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old,” Obama said.

He paused for several seconds to keep his composure as he teared up and wiped an eye. Nearby, two aides cried and held hands as they listened to Obama.

“They had their entire lives ahead of them – birthdays, graduations, wedding, kids of their own,” Obama continued about the victims. “Among the fallen were also teachers, men and women who devoted their lives to helping our children.”

Vigil held in Riverfront Park

About 100 people gathered in Riverfront Park on Friday night for a candlelight vigil in memory of those killed in the Connecticut school massacre.

Many wrote messages to the victims and their families on paper hearts. They reflected on the tragedy, prayed for those affected and called for change.

Organizer Jenny Yoakum was driving her 4-year-old son to a doctor appointment when she heard the news on the radio. She was overwhelmed with sadness for the victims and their families and felt like she needed to do something.

“My heart is broken,” Yoakum said. “I felt like most of the community was probably feeling the same way. I just thought that if we could come together and send as much prayer and love as possible to those families, maybe they could feel it.”

– Chelsea Bannach

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