Recordings of calls to emergency services from the scene of a United States school shooting last December were released yesterday, revealing harrowing details of the massacre in which 20 children and six adults died.
Emergency call centre operators urged panicked callers to take cover, mobilised help and asked about the welfare of the children in the Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut, as gunshots could be heard in the background.
The gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, shot his way into the school on the morning of 14 December, 2012 with a semi-automatic rifle. He also killed his mother in their Newtown home before driving to the school, and killed himself as police arrived at the scene.
The calls to the 911 emergency dispatch service were posted on the town’s website yesterday under a court order, after a lengthy effort by US media to have them released.
The first call, which lasted 24 seconds, was from the school secretary Barbara Halstead, who said: “I think there’s somebody shooting in here in Sandy Hook School.”
Asked why she thinks that, she says: “Somebody’s got a gun. I saw a glimpse of somebody running down the hallway, they’re still around me, there’s still shooting. Sandy Hook, please.”
The call came in at 9:35am and is one of seven that was made public. Dispatchers talk to Rick Thorne, the school’s janitor, who is asked if he saw anything out of the window and replies: “No, it’s still going on I can’t get over there.”
At one point, he says that “now it is silent” but he says that the shooting starts again, accompanied by a regular gun-like noise that is distorted down the phone. Mr Thorne says: “There’s still – it’s still going on!”
An unidentified teacher called from a classroom to the left of the front entrance to report the sound of gunshots in the hall. She said she was in the room with all her pupils and had not locked the door. “Keep everybody calm, keep everybody down, get everybody away from windows, OK,” the dispatcher said. Another woman, who was shot in the foot, reported she was in a class with children and two other adults, but that there was no way to safely lock the door. The dispatcher told her to apply pressure to the wound.
Throughout, the 911 operators remain calm and try to reassure everyone that help is on the way.
In one of the recordings, dispatchers were heard making calls to state police that apparently rang unanswered. One of the three unanswered calls rang for at least 50 seconds. State police picked up on a fourth call.
Official logs show state officers had already been dispatched when the calls were made.
The tapes were released after a freedom of information battle between Newtown and media in the US. Among those who campaigned to keep the calls private was Shari Burton, a teaching assistant at Sandy Hook that day, who fears being “ambushed” by the calls for the rest of her life.
She has said: “I will never know when I will be confronted with the sound of myself or my colleagues calling for help.”
Nicole Hockley, whose British-born son Dylan, six, died, also said the recordings are “not in anybody’s interest” and not how she wants to remember her son.
Newtown school superintendent John Reed yesterday e-mailed parents to alert them to the recordings’ release and remind them the tapes could serve as an “emotional trigger”.
The prosecutor in charge of the Newtown investigation, State’s Attorney Stephen Sedensky, had argued that making recordings public could prove painful to the families of the victims and violate the rights of the survivors.
• School secretary Barbara Halstead: “I think there’s somebody shooting in here in Sandy Hook School. Somebody’s got a gun. I saw a glimpse of somebody running down the hallway, they’re still around me there’s still shooting. Sandy Hook please.”
• Rick Thorne, the school’s janitor, tells the dispatcher: “They’re shooting at the front door, something’s going on… The front glass is all shot out, it kept going on. It’s still happening, I keep hearing shooting – I keep hearing popping. There’s still shooting going on! Please!”
• An unidentified woman teacher says: “There’s children in this room.”
“Are you OK right now?” the 911 operator asks. “For now, hopefully,” she said.
• Another teacher says: “It sounds like there are gunshots in the hallway. The door isn’t locked. I have to go lock the door.”