Thousands journey to Newtown to share their grief

This place of grief has become a place of pilgrimage, with people coming from all over New England and beyond to say a prayer, light a candle, lay a wreath or a teddy bear, or just stand quietly in solidarity with this heartbroken town.

Twenty-six Christmas trees stand at the entrance to Sandy Hook Elementary School, each representing a victim of last week’s massacre there. They have been decorated by strangers who have come to this devastated little community by the thousands.

Gina Rider drove 130 miles from Holliston, Mass., with four small paper hearts that she and her 10-year-old son, Nicholas, had cut out and adorned with the words “Love,” “Peace,” “Faith” and “Hope.”

“My son and I were both crying and asking what can we do to help, when we heard about the trees,” Rider said. “I said, ‘Let’s make some ornaments, and if we do, I promise we’ll put them on a tree.’ ”

Newtown is also a place where the growing national debate over how America deals with its guns and its mentally ill is deeply, painfully personal. As President Obama and gun rights advocates prepare to take on those contentious subjects, discussion about them here is still raw.

Read the stories of the Newtown shooting victims

Steve Perrelli, an insurance agent from East Haven, drove 45 minutes to Newtown because he was “overwhelmed and heartbroken” by the shootings and angered by gun laws that he believes contributed to the carnage.

He laid his offering up the street from the school, next to hundreds of others that reflect both the age of the victims and the sadness of a lost holiday season: teddy bears with Santa hats, a green Kermit the Frog and a striped Tigger, a reindeer, flowers and Christmas wreaths, all wet and splashed with mud.

“For a kid to have that kind of a gun,” he said, his voice trailing off as he stared at the sopping memorial. He said he doesn’t understand the argument for keeping assault weapons legal.

“Don’t these people have any hearts?” he said.

Three burly EMTs from Newark came to place votive candles, one for each victim, in a heart shape in the wet grass.

“We see this from the point of view of the first responders,” said Michael Alves, dressed like his buddies in a navy-blue uniform. “We did this from our heart.”

Alves, Bruno Castanheira and Oscar Caicedo said they took the day off and drove an hour and 40 minutes to pay their respects. They see the brutality of gun violence daily in their work, they said, and they don’t think an assault-weapons ban would change anything.

“If somebody really wants a gun, they will find one,” Castanheira said, crouching to light the candles with a cigarette lighter. “This kid, his mom had these guns legally. Even if you ban them, what’s to stop somebody from just taking one from someone who has them legally?”

Grief counselors and caregivers of all varieties — from religious evangelists to a group of massage therapists from Rhode Island who came to offer free rub-downs to the Newtown Volunteer Ambulance Corps — have arrived in town to provide comfort.

The visitors choked Newtown’s streets Tuesday, as residents tried to find normal amid the unspeakable. Funeral processions practically passed each other as two more 6-year-old victims were laid to rest: James Mattioli and Jessica Rekos.

“We are devastated, and our hearts are with the other families who are grieving as we are,” Jessica’s parents, Rich and Krista Rekos, said in a statement.

The town’s students, or most of them, went back to class for the first time since Friday.

At Reed Intermediate School, they were greeted with a message: red plastic cups stuck into the chain-link fence, spelling out the word “Pray.”

The district’s fleet of yellow school buses bore ribbons of green and white, the Sandy Hook colors, tied to their grills.

Sandy Hook Elementary itself was empty, as it will stay for months, while an unused middle school in neighboring Monroe was being readied as a replacement.

There are dozens of gun shops within a few miles of Sandy Hook, and firearms are plentiful in this part of Connecticut, filled with rolling hills and deep woods perfect for hunting and sport shooting.

Dick’s Sporting Goods, a major retail chain, sells an array of firearms in the hunting section of its store in the Danbury Fair Mall, about 15 miles west of Newtown. On Tuesday morning, however, the gun racks were cleared of all weapons. A clerk was removing even BB guns from the shelves, stacking them on a dolly.

“Out of respect for the victims and their families, during this time of national mourning we have removed all guns from sale and from display in our store nearest to Newtown and suspended the sale of modern sporting rifles in all of our stores chainwide,” the company said in a statement issued Tuesday.

Gun shop owners in the area said they had been interviewed by agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. An agent left a business card at the door of J.T.’s Gun Shop in Danbury on Monday asking the owner to “Please call ASAP!”

“Connecticut has the strongest gun laws almost in the entire country,” said shop owner James Terico. “You know and I know that anyone who wants to find a gun will find one. Nothing illegal was done. What more can you do?”

Terico said that Adam Lanza, identified by police as the shooter, was “so full of hate it was unbelievable.”

“To shoot your mother in the face, you have to be really disturbed,” Terico said, adding that violent movies and video games are contributing to such violence. “It’s not the guns. Why does the media always point the finger at the gun shops? Why don’t they go after the moviemakers?”

H. Wayne Carver, the state’s chief medical examiner, said the bodies of Lanza and his mother, Nancy Lanza, were claimed Tuesday afternoon. He would not say by whom, and he said the funeral home requested that it not be identified.

Results of toxicology tests to determine whether Adam Lanza had taken any drugs before his rampage will not be back for at least two weeks, Carter said.

After days of sealing off the neighborhood where the Lanzas lived, police opened Yogananda Street to public traffic. Two cruisers from Stamford were parked at the property to keep guard.

The house remains decorated for the holidays, a large Christmas wreath hanging above the front porch and green trim running around the columns.

It also remains a crime scene, cordoned off by hundreds if not thousands of feet of yellow tape encircling the vast, hilly front yard.

Peter Hermann and Anne V. Hull in Newtown, and Jennifer Jenkins and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

Kevin Sullivan is a Post senior correspondent. He is a longtime foreign correspondent who has been based in Tokyo, Mexico City and London, and also served as the Post’s Sunday and Features Editor.
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