Newtown takes first step in recovery after grade school shooting
By Rick Maese,
NEWTOWN, Conn. — Somehow, the sun rose the next day. Near the center of Newtown, a large American flag hung halfway up the town’s 110-foot pole Saturday morning, and two miles away, the bodies of the shooting victims had already been removed from an elementary school.
Somehow, the tightknit community of Newtown rose, too. Their weekend routines were diverted by shock, and they leaned on each other for comfort. Not far down Main Street, Dan Honan reported to work wearing a sweater beneath his blazer as the lone funeral home in town prepared for the “unknowable.” Soon, families would be calling and arrangements would need to be made.
A town where nothing much happens struggled to process what exactly had happened at one of its grade schools Friday morning, how it could happen and why it could happen.
“You hear about it happening over there — another state, another country. Not here,” said Teri Brunelli, a shop owner. “I was explaining to my kids, we’re really not safe, no matter where we are. If you aren’t safe here, in this town, where are we safe?”
The portrait of a ravaged, stricken community might seem familiar by now: affluent and well-
educated; the schools are stellar, the neighborhoods safe, and everyone knows everyone. Newtown is no different, and when a lone gunman burst into Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday morning and fatally shot 12 girls, eight boys and six women, the randomness of such violence seemed to be underscored.
“It’s like a dream feeling. You can’t really believe it’s happening,” said Rabbi Shaul Praver of the Adath Israel congregation. “Yet it happened.”
As they do every weekend, Jason and Lauren Patrick loaded their 18-month-old daughter into a stroller early Saturday and climbed up the hill to the general store. The emotions from the previous day were still fresh, the horrors still vivid. Lauren works at a preschool, which like all of the public schools in the area was on lockdown Friday. That meant parents were outside in the parking lot for three hours, unable to pick up their children.
“When they finally came in,” Lauren said, “they were shaking, didn’t say a word, just went right to their kids. The desperation on their faces, it’s unforgettable.”
A full day later, the terror had hardly subsided. Nine-year-old Derek Rousseau attends a nearby elementary school. He confided to his parents Friday night, “I’m stressed.”
“He has a lot of questions, as you can imagine,” said his mother, Jennifer Rousseau, acknowledging the paucity of answers.
Keith and Jennifer Rousseau took their son to church Saturday morning to pray.
With a population of just over 27,000, Newtown has four elementary schools, one intermediate school and one high school. Friday’s lockdown stirred feelings in students and educators that persist.
Jennifer Godvout, a caregiver, said her 11-year-old son had spent Friday morning hiding behind a sink in his classroom. That night, she took him to church, where he asked to speak with the priest. After a family breakfast Saturday morning, they returned to church and then had plans to take advantage of free grief counseling offered at a school.
“Hopefully, that will help,” Godvout said.
She figures it will take time. Returning to any sense of normalcy will be a process for the whole town. Memorials of candles, stuffed animals and letters were spread all across Newtown — at the flagpole, town hall, St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church. Holiday shopping was put on hold, and media had camped out in all corners of town. Mail carriers, on lockdown Friday, were delivering two days’ worth of mail, and trucks were still out in the dark Saturday evening. And even though wreaths still decorated windows and holiday lights glowed across residential streets, residents said they could barely recognize their quiet home.
Newtown, after all, is a place with holiday parades, active church groups and endless school functions. Barely two weeks ago, hundreds gathered for the lighting of the village Christmas tree in Sandy Hook, where shops served hot chocolate, middle school students sang carols and Santa greeted children.
“Quaint” is what everyone says. New England’s version of Mayberry. The Holy Cow Ice Cream Shop has a sign that reads “Gone Fishin’ ” when it’s closed for winter, and the local orthodontist has a mailbox out front specifically for “Letters for Santa.” The new signs of horror were easy to spot this weekend. Outside Butcher’s Best, for example, a chalkboard read, “Please Pray.”
Brunelli owns a store called Everything Newtown, where the town’s name is stamped on coffee mugs, T-shirts, key chains — everything. She cried as she hung a sign on the shop door Saturday morning, pledging that 25 percent of her sales would go to the victims’ families.
“I never would have thought I’d be doing something like this,” she said. “Never. Never.”
NeighborhoodScout.com ranks Newtown as the fifth-safest city in the United States with a population of at least 25,000. Until Friday, the month’s top crime news included shoplifting at a gas station and vandals knocking over a headstone at the cemetery.
Barely 2 percent of families here live below the poverty line, according to census figures, and the median household income is $101,000, up more than $10,000 in the previous decade. Many in Newtown commute the 60 miles to their jobs in New York and opt to live where homes are affordable and space is abundant.
The Sandy Hook neighborhood features older homes, many with smaller price tags than newer parts of town. But the schools, churches, youth sports leagues and community events tie together all corners of Newtown.
“Everybody knows everybody,” Brunelli said. “Everyone’s a victim because we’re all affected in one way or another.”
By mid-morning, Honan, the funeral home director, was making sure everything was in order. The first families had called. They’d be arriving for a consultation shortly. “This kind of thing just doesn’t happen here,” he said.
Throughout the day, Newtown residents sought solace at St. Rose of Lima, which remained open for 24 hours and was one of several churches to offer Saturday services. Outside, Ed Hartz, who had been in the milk business until recently, tried to find a single target for his anger. Hartz is a proud gun owner, and he’s concerned about mental illness, the impact of drugs, the possibility that the nation has lost its way, many things.
“I think there are real Americans here,” he said.
Before long, the anger gave way to sorrow, and Hartz became choked up.
“We feel very close to the pain that those families feel. . . . My children are not as young, but it feels as though they’re my children,” he said. “It could happen to me.”
Across town at Adath Israel, Praver held a special service. It was standing room only. The congregation had lost one of its own in that classroom, a 6-year-old named Noah Prozner. Praver had spent much of the previous 24 hours with the boy’s family, trying to make sense of the senseless.
“It was a very difficult experience to endure, to see the families waiting for that news,” he said. “Horrible anxiety. Of course, when bad news came in, it was a lot of wailing.”
At the service, Praver talked about grief, perseverance and the violence children are exposed to through games and entertainment.
The town, he said, is “shell-shocked.” But he said just as they mourn together, they’ll heal together.
“It is a beautiful place, and this event — this horrible tragedy — does not define our town,” he said.
Anne Hull contributed to this report.