Residents of an intimate Connecticut town are reeling after one of their own opens fire in an elementary school
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Dec 15, 2012
NEWTOWN, Conn. » At the crossroads that marks the center of this 3-century-old New England postcard town stands a flagpole that's a kind of barometer. Every day, says Susan Osborne White, who has lived here all her life, "it tells me which way the wind is blowing" — and she calls the local newspaper whenever the flag is lowered to half-staff, to ask why.
No one is asking that now as the flag forlornly hangs over a heartbroken, uncomprehending town.
After killing his mother at their home, 20-year-old Adam Lanza opened fire Friday inside the elementary school where she taught, massacring 26 people, including 20 children, before committing 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 left 33 people dead in 2007.
Along streets where every window twinkles with holiday candles, police sirens wailed Friday. Over horse pastures in what was until fairly recently a rural town, helicopters' rotors thudded. In shops, televisions set to news stations blared.
Gesturing at a TV image of the shooting scene behind him at Newtown Hardware, Kyle Watts gave a pained cry, "I know that place," and shook his head. He's 18 and had gone to Sandy Hook Elementary School, yet he and others working at the store felt they hardly knew where they were.
"A week or two ago," he said in disbelief, "we had the Christmas tree lighting. There was singing."
In normal times this is a place that marks the year with a community tree lighting, an endless Labor Day parade running past the Main Street flagpole in which it's said everyone is either a participant or spectator or both, and an annual fundraising lobster dinner at one of the five volunteer fire companies. It's a place where a benefactress, Mary Hawley, donated the classically designed town hall and the large, red-brick library, both set among towering oaks and maples. On a lake in town, part of one of the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn comedies was filmed.
It's become a bedroom community for commuters to Manhattan and Connecticut's more tony coastal towns, but it has retained the rural character that was set in 1708 when the colonial assembly of Connecticut permitted 36 men to lay out a new town. Some houses today date from not long after that, but there are typical modern subdivisions, too.
"It's still very much a small town in its heart. People really know each other," said Dan Cruson, the town's historian, who has written a number of books about Newtown.
Sandy Hook is a section of town where the first grist mill was built along the rocky, rushing Pootatuck River. Other mills followed, and manufacturing grew in Sandy Hook. "It's always had its own identity," Cruson said, and in recent years it has been revitalized with smart restaurants and shops in Sandy Hook's center.
"Everyone knows everyone. All of Sandy Hook is so tight," said Watts.
Maybe the school shooter was recognized when he entered and didn't seem a threat because he was known, he and others at the hardware store speculated. "You would never think …" he said, leaving the thought incomplete.
The closeness has another dimension, of course.
"Everybody in town is going to help out. … All of the churches are open tonight," said his co-worker Francis Oggeri, who's 22.
Scudder Smith agreed. "I was just down at the firehouse. Restaurants were sending in food," said Smith, publisher of the Newtown Bee, the weekly paper that has published since 1877.
The Bee had closed this week's edition — with front-page reports on the schools "performing at or above target," on vandalism at a cemetery and other stories — when the first word of the shooting came in.
"We've been putting everything on our website. We were the first ones down there," Smith said. "We've had calls from Turkey, all over Europe."
A police scanner alerted the newsroom, and reporter Shannon Hicks said, "I listened long enough to figure out where this was unfolding and headed out." Her photo of terrified children being led across a school parking lot appeared around the world.
Asked about the town, Hicks said, "It's a good town. We have our issues" — squabbling over the local budget, police news and the like — "but this is not the kind of thing that's supposed to be one of them."