THEY were “wearing cute kids’ stuff” said the medical examiner Wayner Carver just before he began to release the names of the 20 young victims of the Sandy Hook massacre last night.
The youngest child to be killed was Noah Pozner, who celebrated his sixth birthday only last month. Most of the children who died were girls.
The day before they had arrived at their elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, excited about an afternoon making gingerbread houses with their parents and teachers.
The shock was still raw last night as the names and pictures of the 20 children slaughtered, each one shot more than once, emerged. Carver said the children suffered a “devastating set of injuries.”
He had examined seven of the children killed. Two had been shot at close range. When asked how many bullets were fired, he said: “I’m lucky if I can tell you how many I found.”
Among the victims, was Ana Marquez-Greene, aged seven, whose family had moved to the town just two months ago. Her father is the respected Canadian jazz musician Jimmy Greene.
There was Jesse Lewis, six, whose father Neil Heslin had dropped his son off at school that morning and planned to return in the afternoon to joinin the holiday tradition of making gingerbread houses. And Grace McDonnell, also six, who was described as “utterly adorable” and “full of life”.
President Barack Obama, in his weekly address, pledged to make changes to America’s liberal gun control laws as remarkable tales of heroism by teachers who laid down their lives for their pupils also came to light.
Adam Lanza, 20, was a former pupil at the school. Those who knew him, portrayed him as a loner who went to target shooting with his mother Nancy, who is believed to have been his first victim at their family home. Connecticut state police revealed yesterday that the gunman had forced his way into the school before opening fire. Police spokesman Lt Paul Vance talked of “peeling back the onion” as crime scene investigators continued to search his home and school. He also revealed that “very good evidence” had been found at both crime scenes as to Lanza’s motivation.
“Our investigators at the crime scene, the school, and at the secondary crime scene where the female was located deceased, did produce some very good evidence that our investigators will be able to use in hopefully painting the complete picture as to how and, more importantly, why this occurred,” he said.
The massacre brought back memories in Scotland of the Dunblane murders in 1996 when Thomas Hamilton shot dead 16 primary school pupils and their teacher. On Facebook yesterday, a message from the Dunblane community centre read: “Words cannot adequately express how all of us at the Dunblane Centre feel about the horrors [of the] events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. We are part of a community which unfortunately understands what the people of Newtown are likely to be feeling right now, and we offer our heartfelt sympathies and love to them all.”
Lanza’s motives are not yet clear – the connection, if any, between his mother and the school, has not yet been established. It has left the whole of the US population wondering again what it is about their country that prompts such extreme events.
What became clearer yesterday, however, as investigators pieced together the details of the massacre was that his mother was the first victim. Nancy Lanza legally owned a Sig Sauer and a Glock, both handguns of models commonly used by police, and a military-style Bushmaster .223 M4 carbine, according to law enforcement officials who also believe her son used at least some of those weapons.
According to Dan Holmes, owner of a landscaping business who recently decorated her yard with Christmas garlands and lights, Nancy Lanza was an avid gun collector who once showed him a “really nice, high-end rifle” that she had purchased. “She said she would often go target shooting with her kids,” he added.
With his mother’s dead body lying in the house they shared, Lanza took her car and drove the four-and-a-half miles to the school armed with a range of guns. Dressed in combat gear, he arrived at the school just as children were settling down to their lessons at around 9:30am and, according to police yesterday, forced his way in.
The first shots rang out almost as soon as Lanza entered the school. Gathered in a room for a meeting were principal Dawn Hochsprung and school therapist Diane Day, along with a school psychologist Mary Sherlach, other staff members and a parent.
“We were there for about five minutes chatting, and we heard: Pop! Pop! Pop!” Day told The Wall Street Journal. “I went under the table.”
But Hochsprung,47, and Sherlach, 56, leapt out of their seats and ran out of the room, Day recalled. “They didn’t think twice about confronting or seeing what was going on,” she said.
With no thought for her own safety, Hochsprung flung herself at the gunman, but he responded by killing her and Sherlach in an “execution-style” shooting.
In another astonishing display of courage Vicki Soto, 27, was trying to shield her students and usher them into a closet when she came face-to-face with the gunman. Soto’s cousin, Jim Wiltsie, said: “She put herself between the gunman and the children and that’s when she was tragically shot and killed.
“I’m just proud that Vicki had the instincts to protect her kids from harm. It brings peace to know that Vicki was doing what she loved, protecting the children and in our eyes she’s a hero,” he added.
By now, according to US police, Lanza was loosing off rounds from his two handguns (the carbine had been left in the car). He then made his way into two classrooms where, with no word of explanation, he opened fire on teachers and children. The police were alerted at 9:36 am.
Meanwhile, a school employee ran through the halls, warning of a gunman on the loose. Someone switched on the intercom, alerting people in the building to the attack by letting them hear the hysteria gripping the school.
As the horror unfolded, students and teachers elsewhere in the school huddled in hiding places, terrified by the screaming and the sound of gunfire.
Teachers locked the doors, turned off the lights and closed the blinds. Some ordered students to duck under their desks.
An assistant librarian, MaryAnne Jacobs, described how she hid with 18 first grade children and some of her adult colleagues in a storage cupboard for 45 minutes to avoid the gunman.
In an attempt to keep the children calm, the adults tried to pretend that the upheaval was part of a routine drill – although it became quite clear that something was seriously wrong.
They followed the usual drill for emergency procedures, telling the children to be quiet and sit down before taking them initially to a place they thought safe and then to the room normally used to house servers for the library computers.
“We just told them it was a drill, they knew what to do,” she said, fighting back tears.
“I think they [the children] were like ‘what is that? What is going on?’ but I don’t think they really had any idea.
“At that point they were a little freaked out I think, there were some crayons and paper so we tore up paper and gave them all something to do. It was hard to just keep them quiet and calm.”
She said they barricaded the door with filing cabinets, only opening it when a police officer slid an identification badge underneath.
Teams of armed police officers stormed the school after the alarm had been raised. Windows were smashed as they forced entry into the building but by then the damage was done.
Just eight minutes later, at 9:38 am, a message went out on police radio:“The shooting appears to have stopped. There is silence at this time. The school is in lock-down.”
Officers arriving on the scene searched room to room, removing children and staff from harm’s way.
One of the students, Brendan Murray, described the chaotic scenes saying an officer came into his classroom shooting: “Is he in here?” before running out.
Children, warned to close their eyes so they could not see what had happened, were led away from their school.
Officers found Lanza, dead. He had shot himself. They recovered the Sig Sauer and the Glock inside the school and the .223 M4 carbine was recovered from the car.
In all, 18 youngsters were pronounced dead at the school and two others were declared dead after being transported to hospital.
All six adults who were killed at the school were pronounced dead there.
As children were evacuated, parents rushed to the scene. Many family members were seen openly weeping. Connecticut governor Dan Malloy and other public officials came to a local fire station used as a gathering point, along with clergymen, including Monsignor Robert Weiss of Newtown’s St Rose Church. He watched as parents came to realise that they would never see their children alive again. “All of them were hoping their child would be found OK. But when they gave out the actual death toll, they realised their child was gone,” Weiss said.
He recalled the reaction of the brother of one of the victims. “They told a little boy it was his sister who passed on,” he said. “The boy’s response was, ‘I’m not going to have anyone to play with.’”
Before Friday’s tragic events, Newtown, 80 miles north of New York, was ranked the fifth safest city in America by the website NeighborhoodScout.com based on 2011 crime statistics.
“This wonderful town that we all love for its peace, beauty, the great schools – all of that – has become Columbine,” said Julie Maxwell Shull, a sixth-grade teacher at Reed Intermediate School, referring to the high school that was the site of a 1999 shooting in Colorado.
The massacre has raised questions about gun control in a country where the National Rifle Association, which argues for the right to bear arms, is one of the most powerful government lobbies in existence.
The shooting was one of the deadliest in US history, and among school attacks it was second only to the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, which left 33 people dead. In an emotional address to the nation, President Barack Obama spoke of “meaningful action” to prevent future mass shootings, giving some hope that the tragedy may finally force the US government to tighten gun laws.
Yesterday, the authorities visited local gun ranges in Connecticut, but have so far found no evidence that the gunman trained for the attack or was an active member of the recreational gun community.
Gun dealers, too, in the area were being interviewed. Over the coming days investigations will focus on the motives of the shooter, as well as how he was able to access so many firearms.
His older brother, Ryan, is understood to have told investigators that Adam was “somewhat autistic”.
Details emerged yesterday of the life of the school principal who died in the attack. Hochsprung had worked at the school for two years where she had become “a beloved figure,” said colleagues, who added the community was experiencing “a deep sense of loss” over her death.
Yesterday, Jeff Capeci, chairman of the town’s legislative council was asked if Hochsprung was a hero. He said: “From what we know, it’s hard to classify her as anything else.”
Governor Malloy urged the people of his state to come together. “Evil visited this community today, and it is too early to speak of recovery, but each parent, each sibling, each member of the family has to understand that Connecticut, we are all in this together, we will do whatever we can to overcome this event, we will get through it,” he said.