It's an emotional and gut wrenching read
12-14-12: The day Newtown will never forget
Around 9:15 a.m., Gene Rosen hears shots. Must be fireworks, he thinks, as he walks up the stairs to the loft above his garage in his Riverside Road home. No hunter in his right mind would use that many rounds, and so near an elementary school. Rosen, 69, and a retired psychologist, goes about feeding his cat and two others he rescued.
Just up the street, Cathy Dahlmeyer hears the shots, too. God, eight of them, she counts. The sounds make her three rescue dogs jumpy. Probably a car backfiring, she says to herself. The one-story ranch house where Dahlmeyer and her grown daughter live is on Sunnyview Terrace, across from the school and near the Sandy Hook firehouse.
Dahlmeyer had come home an hour or so earlier from working the night shift as an advanced emergency technician for the Newtown Volunteer Ambulance Corps. A busy night. Four calls, one every couple of hours. She has barely lain down to get some sleep.
Across town, Therese Lestik pops open her Dell laptop in her home office. Earlier, she sent her 5-year-old daughter Eva off to kindergarten at Sandy Hook Elementary, tossing some cheese sticks into her snack bag and walking her out to the bus stop. Now, an automated reverse 911 call comes in on her phone, telling of a shooting in town. Lestik, 50, isn't worried. Probably a bank job, like the one a few years ago.
It's the 14th year the Lestiks have lived in their big, comfortable, yellow Colonial near the Monroe border. Today is the 13th birthday for their son, Christian. They have big plans for this evening.
In the center of town, on Route 25, just down the hill from Newtown's iconic flagpole, police Officer William Chapman sits down to complete every cop's least-favorite part of the job: paperwork. Chapman's shift starts at 8 a.m., but before he can leave the police station and go out on patrol, the 29-year-old officer has to take care of some routine business. He has been on the force for five years.
Dannel P. Malloy
And in Hartford, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is about to preside over a meeting at the state Capitol to discuss health and human service issues with several of his commissioners. The previous evening, the governor hosted a Christmas party for 36 state senators, one of a series of such holiday events, some more tolerable than others.
He had gone jogging shortly after dawn, running a 22-minute circuit near Elizabeth Park, showering, then grabbing a cup of coffee for a token breakfast.
Around 9:30 a.m., the Newtown police dispatch operator alerts units that a caller has reported a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Officer William Chapman bolts from his desk and out to his cruiser. The school is three miles away -- up the hill, a right on Church Hill Road, under Interstate 84 and by the shops and restaurants of Sandy Hook's four corners and past the cemetery with its leaning gray tombstones dating to 1813. Then a hard right on Dickinson to get back to the school. He tells himself to stay calm, to drive swiftly but safely.
He listens to the dispatch reports on his cruiser radio. He has his rifle ready as he pulls into the school parking lot.
There are nine or 10 other Newtown officers there, including Chief Michael Kehoe. Chapman hears rifle fire inside the school. He and Officer Scott Smith charge through the front door, where the glass has been shot out, while Kehoe and another officer go in through a side entrance.
This is serious, he thinks.
Officers are trained to check rooms to make sure a shooter is not lurking, so Chapman and Smith do not linger in rooms where there are victims. They are hunting for the shooter.
Officers discover the shooter is dead. Chapman and Smith go back down the hall. They return to an area where they know there are victims -- a first-grade classroom where a majority of the slain children are found.
The room is full of the bodies of children. But one child, a little girl, still shows signs of life.
A tall, muscular man, Chapman scoops the child into his arms and runs out to find an ambulance. He tells the little girl she is safe, that the police are there to protect her and that she is loved.
Cathy Dahlmeyer's dogs won't stop barking. The puggle, Leo, "goes into frozen shaking mode."
She turns her pager on. She hears sirens. Lots of sirens. Dispatch is sending an ambulance to stand by at the church. Looking out her window, she sees town police and state troopers flying down Dickinson toward the school, sirens screaming and lights flashing.
Dahlmeyer kicks her dogs out of the way, throws on her blue EMT uniform, grabs her radio and jumps into her tan Toyota FJ Cruiser. She heads for the Methodist church on Church Hill Road, about a half mile from her house.
She knows the crew will be there, but they won't know why because the dispatcher didn't put it out on the radio.
They don't know what I've heard.
She jumps in the ambulance and tells them what she knows. They drive to the Sandy Hook firehouse, at the mouth of the street leading to the school.
Please, maybe it's a hunter and somebody panicked and it's nothing.
Two state cops are frantically waving Dahlmeyer and the ambulance crew toward the school. They pull into the school parking lot.
There's a Newtown police officer holding a small child. He's on one knee, holding her low to the ground, grave concern on his face.
This is like seeing an image in Time magazine from Afghanistan. Holy crap. This can't be happening. I'm dreaming; it's a nightmare.
Dahlmeyer starts to get out the side door of the ambulance then jumps back in. She drops down the stretcher. The police officer climbs into the ambulance and lays the child on it.
"You need to hold here," the officer tells her, showing her a wound.
Where the hell is my medic? OK, here he is.
The medic and another EMT are with Dahlmeyer in the ambulance. Around her is everything she might need, from oxygen and heart monitors to blood pressure cuffs, gloves and dressings. Dahlmeyer puts pressure on the girls' wound. She realizes the child has been shot.
A state trooper opens the back doors of the ambulance. "Do you have a radio?" he asks.
"Yes! We have a radio, we have lots of radios," Dahlmeyer says.
"Well, call dispatch and tell them to send everything."
Send everything? You never, ever send everything because you're taking resources you may not need, and you're taking them from where you might need them.
She calls dispatch. "The state police have asked me to call you and they want you to send everything."
The dispatcher responds, "Well, what exactly do you need?"
"They just said, `Send everything,' " Dahlmeyer says.
A third EMT is behind the wheel. The ambulance speeds off to Danbury Hospital.
`Let her be OK'
While Therese Lestik is working on her laptop at home, the TV is on in the background. It's NBC's "Today." It's a little after 9:30 a.m. Newscasters break into the program to say there's been a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.
She snatches up her keys and runs out of the house, dressed in sweatpants and a fleece top, not bothering to grab a coat.
Lestik races to the school in her white Honda SUV. Rather than follow Route 34 straight into Sandy Hook, she takes the back way in to the school -- north on Pole Bridge Road, then left on Philo Curtis Road past Treadwell Park onto Riverside Road and the school.
Please, God, please, let her be OK.
The car will show up in many of the news photos on this day -- the white SUV jammed into a space surrounded by emergency vehicles.
When Lestik arrives, police, fire and emergency workers are flooding into the area surrounding the school and the fire department. Shouting, worried parents add to the throng. The chaos begins to throb.
Where are the kindergartners, where are the kindergartners?
By this time, parents know not only that there's been a shooting at the school, but that principal Dawn Hochsprung has been killed. News updates flash across the smartphones in the crowd.
Eva Lestik's teacher, Janet Vollmer, has done a remarkable job of keeping her students safe -- locking the door to her classroom, pulling down blinds, moving the students to a quiet corner of her classroom out of harm's way, reading to them and reassuring them.
Once police and emergency crews let them leave the school, Vollmer leads her students to safety, walking with them the 200 yards from the school to the fire department.
It is there, in the maelstrom of parents and first responders and news media, that Therese finds her daughter.
Oh, thank God, she's OK.
She hugs Eva. Eva hugs her back. "I was crying for you, Mommy," she says.
Hallway of tears
Inside the ambulance Dahlmeyer is in a state of disbelief. She's nervous, too. She doesn't know what she'll see when the child's clothing is peeled off so she can be treated.
She soon learns.
I cannot believe the damage an assault rifle can do, especially on a small person.
The ambulance is racing down Interstate 84 to Danbury Hospital. The crew administers trauma care to make sure the child is breathing and she has circulation. Dahlmeyer is on her feet, shifting around and administering treatment.
They pull into the hospital and back up to the doors. Police and security are everywhere, waiting. The little girl's body is placed on a backboard and then over to the hospital's stretcher. The paramedic gives the hospital team a quick report.
Inside, the hallway is lined with people, many of them sobbing.
Nurses, technicians, doctors, X-ray, I'm not sure who they all are but the whole hallway is filled.
The hospital has mobilized about 80 medical personnel, enough to staff four emergency rooms and six operating rooms.
Are there more victims? There must be more?
The ambulance heads back to Newtown. Dahlmeyer rides in the back with the paramedic. They don't talk about what's gone on. She calls Walgreens, where she works, to say she won't make it in for her noon shift.
The little girl she and her crew rushed to the hospital is pronounced dead.
The good Samaritan
Gene Rosen spends about 10 minutes in his loft feeding the two stray cats he's rescued, Blackie and Blackjack. He is leaving the loft when he hears a man yelling out, "It's going to be OK."
He looks to the end of his driveway to see a tall, lanky man, possibly a volunteer from the Sandy Hook firehouse next door. There is also a group of six children sitting sweetly in a perfect circle on his front yard near the front lantern.
Who are these kids? They look like Cub Scouts rehearsing a play.
A woman bus driver is with the kids. She says there has been an incident, but she doesn't explain what it was.
She's in shock.
Rosen sees the terror on the children's faces.
The man who was yelling has disappeared. Rosen asks the children to come into his house.
He grabs a handful of his grandchildren's stuffed toys and gives them to the children, who seem to be comforted. One begins to spell her name out on a stuffed frog that has the alphabet on his belly.
They settle in the small living room with wide plank floors, two windows looking out at the driveway and a large brick hearth filled with family photos. A white tile hung with care many years ago that includes a dragonfly and a single word, "Peace."
Two of the boys sit on a rug in front of the couch, and suddenly they begin to talk.
One starts saying loudly, "We can't go back to the school, we can't go back to the school, our teacher is gone. Ms. Soto is gone."
The other boy joins in: "He had a big gun, and a little gun."
A girl also begins talking, saying she saw blood coming from the mouth of her teacher, Victoria Soto. The girl falls to the floor.
Rosen tries to call the children's parents, but nobody is home. So the bus driver calls her supervisor to get emergency contact information.
It was about 10:15 a.m., he said, when parents began to arrive at the home. The bus driver says they have to bring the children to the firehouse, where all the students are being accounted for. So they head down the hill to the firehouse next door.
Rosen is stunned to see scores of parents frantically searching for their children. He returns home a short while later.
About 11 a.m., there's a knock on his door. It's a woman, her face frozen in fear. She has heard that Rosen sheltered six children and was hoping her son was among them.
I want to say he's here. I want to say he's here.
He has to tell her no.
A shaken president
At the Capitol, the governor's meetings have segued, one into another. He gathers aides to talk about the planned move of a hedge fund from Westport to Stamford and about some economic development issues.
Mark Ojakian, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's chief of staff, receives the first of several phone calls from State Police Lt. Sean Cox, head of the governor's security detail. Ojakian steps away to take it, then returns and tells Malloy a shooting has occurred at a Newtown school, but no casualties are reported.
A half hour later, shortly before 11:30 a.m., Ojakian receives another call from Cox, with graver news: There are numerous casualties.
Malloy pulls his overcoat over his dark suit and briskly leaves the Capitol. He slides into the front seat of his official black Ford Taurus (in a budget crisis, limousines are a luxury), next to State Trooper Rich Garcia. In the back is Roy Occhiogrosso, Malloy's former campaign manager and senior advisor, who has just one week left in his two years on the job before leaving state government.
The motorcade -- Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman is in her Lincoln, and they are led by a state trooper in a marked car with emergency lights blazing -- roars off to I-84 and Newtown.
Malloy doesn't know what he's going to find there.
At 12:15 p.m. his motorcade pulls into Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue. Hundreds of concerned families and friends are milling around. Reporters and photographers are roaming the property. Cars are clogging the road.
This is a mess.
A former prosecutor and mayor of Stamford, Malloy is briefed by state police and local officials. They agree the state police will take the lead in the investigation, set up a perimeter for the press, bring chairs into the firehouse and assign a trooper or local police officer to be a liaison with each family searching for a loved one at Sandy Hook.
The firehouse quickly becomes the epicenter of activity. Built in 1938, the low-slung brick building, with its white cupola topped with a metal fire helmet weather vane, is home to 59 volunteers. They generally can manage the few calls they get in a sleepy small town. (In November, there were two: an extrication on Jeremiah Road and a rollover on Exit 10 of I-84).
Volunteers move Engine 442 and the pumpers and other equipment out of the seven bays to make room for everyone.
President Barack Obama calls Malloy on his cellphone, offering sympathies and support. He's clearly disturbed, upset and shaken by the whole thing. Malloy tells him he's not going to be making any statements to the media in the short run because the information was too chaotic.
"Mr. President, you should do whatever you need to do," Malloy tells Obama. "I'm going to wait until I have more information before I respond."
The president acknowledges the massacre during remarks made to the nation around 2:30 p.m., a full hour before Malloy makes his first statement in Newtown.
Malloy watches the people crowded into the Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue building. So many people. Platters of sandwiches, trays of ziti and boxes of pizzas have been brought in to feed everyone milling around on the cold concrete floor.
Parents and firefighters, police and ministers quietly talk, moving in little knots. There is still hope in the air, hope that at least some of the 20 children missing from Sandy Hook Elementary School may turn up alive. Hiding in a closet. At a neighbor's house or in the woods. Alive, somehow.
The governor of Connecticut knows better. An intense man, restless and not easily given to small talk, Malloy is ready to act. The investigators have told him about the gruesome scene just a few hundred yards away. He knows the number of dead bodies found inside the school matches the number of unaccounted-for children and teachers.
We have to tell these people. They need to know the truth.
Malloy is accustomed to being in charge. Still, he dreads the moment. At about 3 p.m., he calls for everyone's attention. Malloy chooses his words carefully, taking great pains not to use the word "dead."
"This is now a crime scene," Malloy says of the elementary school. "You are not going to be reunited with your loved one."
A few people cry out in anguish.
"What about the two children who were taken to the hospital?" someone yells.
They have died, Malloy says.
"It's just a morgue, then, it's just a morgue," a woman shouts.
Malloy says a few more words, words he hopes will console and comfort. But he knows the minds and hearts of the parents in the firehouse have gone to another place.
End of the day
By early evening, the magnitude of the carnage is known, even though the names of the victims won't be released for another day. Stories have spread of what happened that morning inside the school, of the heroism of the principal and teachers, of the unimaginable terror. The news coverage is international in scope, almost suffocating.
A 7 p.m. vigil is attended by hundreds at St. Rose of Lima Church, just a few miles from the school. St. Rose will become the scene of eight funerals in the next several days.
Gene Rosen spends much of the evening talking to his wife, Maggie, about what happened.
While getting ready for bed, Rosen turns on the news and hears an announcer speak about the massacre at Sandy Hook.
This is so bizarre. How did this happen to my hometown?
William Chapman drives back to the police station in the late afternoon. Upon his arrival he is surrounded and flanked by fellow officers. He meets with a counselor to try to sort out at least his initial emotions of what is described by first responders as the most horrific scene they have ever encountered.
Chapman changes out of his uniform. It's dark as he leaves the station. He's happy to get home, where his family and friends await him. They unwind around the fireplace and watch the Bing Crosby classic, "White Christmas.''
For a while, Cathy Dahlmeyer is at her second home, the ambulance garage. There are friends and support there. When her husband, Detlef, died in March after a three-year battle with cancer, she knew her family -- her 28-year-old daughter, Teresa, and her two sons, 31-year-old Justin and 23-year-old Alexander -- would have a hard time with Christmas. Now there's this, too.
She leaves the ambulance garage around 8:45 p.m. What is normally a 10-minute trip takes her an hour because of the traffic and checkpoints and gridlock.
She has been up for 36 hours. She gets into some warm pajamas and falls asleep right away. About two hours later, she is awakened by a knock on her door.
This isn't good. Why is someone knocking on my door at this hour?
Her heart is pounding. The dogs bark furiously.
She turns on the light and opens the door. There's a woman with a news microphone. Dahlmeyer mutters some expletives and shuts the door in her face.
Malloy goes back to Hartford about 9:30 p.m. He hasn't eaten all day. He gets a glass of white wine and tells his wife, Cathy, about the day.
Therese's parents have arrived at the Lestik family's home. So has her sister. Everyone's there for son Christian's 13th birthday.
The phone never stops ringing. Her in-laws from North Carolina are calling. Her husband, Michael, has a relative on a business trip to Germany. He calls, too.
Producers for the national media track her down. Geraldo. Bill O'Reilly. Therese eventually ends up being interviewed by Erica Hill on NBC's "Today," the program she was watching when the news of the shooting broke.
Christian's birthday party at Panino's Restaurant in Monroe grows from the immediate Lestik family to about 18 people.
They try hard to celebrate. Nobody talks about what happened earlier.
Therese Lestik is happy her family was able to celebrate Christian's birthday. They go home from the Monroe restaurant and stay up and watch the television news coverage of the shooting. They go to bed around midnight, exhausted.
Eva sleeps with her parents.
In two days, the names of the 20 slain children will be known by a grieving nation, recited by Obama in a televised memorial service from Newtown High School. Charlotte. Daniel. Olivia. Josephine. Ana. Dylan. Madeleine. Catherine. Chase. Jesse. James. Grace. Emilie. Jack. Noah. Caroline. Jessica. Avielle. Benjamin. Allison. The world will learn, too, about the six women who were their teachers and school administrators, some of whom lost their lives trying to save the 6- and 7-year-old children.
Before he gunned down the children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary and took his own life, 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother, Nancy, at the home they shared on Yogananda Street in Newtown.
The investigation into the shootings will take months, police say.
For the five men and women who were interviewed for this story, 12-14-12 did not end on Friday. To say they have reflected on that day -- on what happened and why, on how it affected them and their families, on how to find healing and comfort for themselves and for others -- seems wholly inadequate. How does one comprehend, truly comprehend, the monstrous evil that swept down on their world? Why did this happen?
For more than a decade, Gene Rosen worked at Fairfield Hills as a counselor with the chronically mentally ill, but he says it was the time he spent with his two grandchildren that prepared him.
"These are my teachers," he says, pulling a picture of the two children from the fireplace mantel. "They gave me the strength to be with these children."
When he talks about the day, he pulls off his eyeglasses and sobs.
One day, Rosen hopes, he can have a reunion with the children whom he sheltered for that awful moment and take them sledding on the backyard hill where he has taken his grandchildren on snowy winter afternoons.
"They are just so sweet and so innocent," he says. "These children are always in my prayers. I want to meet them in the light, because we came together in the darkness."
How has the tragedy transformed him, William Chapman is asked?
He thinks about the question. "I won't know the answer to that for years,'' he finally says.
The shootings have traumatized his police department. Many of the 15 Newtown officers -- one-third of the 45-officer force -- witnessed the carnage at Sandy Hook Elementary. A peer liaison for officer counseling, Chapman is stoic about the events of that day, but he says he has tried to be "very proactive about taking care of officers.''
It is a great comfort, he says, that so many children escaped unharmed from the gunman's savagery. It's "impossible to see so many kids leave that building and not be thankful we were there, and were there as quickly as we were.''
Chapman knows that it's possible the last words the little girl he cradled in his arms heard were the words he told her -- that she was loved. That, too, means something to him.
For Dannel Malloy, the first days ahead are full of memorial services and funerals. He attends 12 of them.
He calls Monroe First Selectman Steve Vavrek to ask what he needs to get that town's mothballed Chalk Hill Middle School up and running for the children of Sandy Hook Elementary. The governor orders several state regulations waived to clear the path.
As state police continue an investigation into the shooting that is likely to take months, legislators and others call for changes to the state's gun laws. There's also widespread speculation over the extent to which the mental health of the shooter played a role in his murderous spree.
Malloy urges lawmakers to include provisions to improve mental health diagnosis and treatment to help avoid future violence. The shooter at Sandy Hook, the governor says, was "mental illness dressed in evil."
The morning after the shootings, Cathy Dahlmeyer goes to a meeting at the ambulance garage for counseling and other services for everyone who was directly involved in the tragedy.
She needs to see the police officer who brought the child to her ambulance.
"I want to see him to see how he's doing," she says.
William Chapman wants to see her, too.
"I give him a big hug," Dahlmeyer says. "No words are necessary. He knows and I know (what has happened)."
She hopes to go to the funeral of the little girl Chapman carried from the school and placed in her arms, but she ends up working.
"I just keep asking, `When am I gonna feel normal again?'"
During the Christmas season, Therese Lestik quietly explains to Eva what happened.
"She asked, she demanded to know,'' Lestik says.
She tells her daughter that the students and teachers at the school were killed and that the 26 victims are in heaven.
"She said, `I want to go to heaven and visit Ms. Hochsprung,''' Lestik says. "I said, `Honey, we can't do that. We can draw her a picture, or buy her some flowers.' She was all right with that.''
Her husband grew up in Newtown and went to Sandy Hook Elementary. This is their family's home. This is where they want to be.
Lestik went with Christian on his first day back at Newtown Middle School. As he leaves her car, she tells him she loves him. As he walks to school, she starts sobbing.
While she admits she may never feel secure about watching Eva get on a school bus again, she also knows her family must overcome what it went through that day.
"If I live in fear, so will my children,'' Lestik says. "If I can't move on, the kids can't move on.''
This story was reported and written by staff writers Linda Tuccio-Koonz, Ken Dixon, Robert Miller, Dirk Perrefort and Nanci G. Hutson.