'I thought we were all going to die'
Published 16/12/2012 | 05:00
Heroic teachers hid children as gunman fired off 100 shots
The children who were dropped off for school by their parents on Friday morning were excitedly counting down the days to Christmas in Connecticut's picturesque Newtown.
For teachers preparing for the day, the festive concert the previous evening was the main subject of conversation as they prepared for classes at Sandy Hook elementary school.
The pupils sat down at their desks for the start of the regular lessons at 9am. And Dawn Hochsprung, a devoted head teacher who regularly sent out pictures of school events on her Twitter feed, convened a staff meeting with senior colleagues in her office.
It was, in other words, just a normal school day on a chilly winter's morning in the affluent community.
But just 5km away, dressed in black fatigues and armed for battle, Adam Lanza, was beginning a killing spree that would shock the world.
At their €500,000 four-bedroom home, the withdrawn 20-year-old loner had earlier confronted his mother Nancy, raised a semi-automatic pistol and shot her dead in the face. The weapon was her own, one of several legally registered in her name.
The two had lived there alone. Mrs Lanza's former husband Peter, a company executive, had moved out before their 2009 divorce and her other son, 24-year-old Ryan, lives just outside New York.
Still wearing his camouflage gear, Adam Lanza drove his mother's Honda Civic to the school, set back in the woods up a hill at the end of a
road. With him he had at least three of her guns.
Mrs Hochsprung had recently introduced new security measures requiring all visitors after 9.30am to show identification to obtain entry to the school. That was to be no impediment to Lanza.
Police confirmed yesterday that he had "forced his way" into the building", not been allowed inside, though declined to elaborate how. The consequences of what happened next is horrendously clear, however.
Shortly after 9.30am, the first emergency calls reporting shooting inside the school reached dispatchers. Carrying the two pistols Lanza walked into two neighbouring classrooms and systematically shot dead many of the small children and at least two teachers who were with them.
Screams and gunshots filled the air. But amid the horror there were remarkable acts of heroism by teachers that saved many more lives. Maryrose Kristopik, a music teacher, herded the terrified children in her classroom into a cupboard, locked the door and urged them to remain quiet.
Later she said: "I told them that I loved them. I said there was a bad person in the school. I didn't want to tell them anything past that. I told them that we had to keep quiet and we were in hiding and nobody knew we were there.
"We held hands and we hugged and I just tried to talk to them a little."
Elsewhere, Kaitlin Roig led 14 first-graders – aged five and six – into a bathroom, blocked the door from inside and told the children that she loved them and that things would be fine, even as gunfire was ripping through the school.
Ms Roig said later: "I told them we had to be absolutely quiet. Because I was so afraid if he did come in, then he would hear us and just start shooting the door. If they started crying I would take their face and tell them, 'I need you to know that I love you all very much and that it's going to be okay.' Because I thought that was the last thing they were ever going to hear and that we were all going to die."
One mother, who gave her name only as Erin, said her daughter Lauren had been in Ms Roig's class when they heard a noise. She said: "The teacher took them all into the bathroom, locked them in and told them they all had to be very quiet. She reacted so fast. She crowded 14 of them in a tiny space and made them stand on the lavatory. She got them all in there.
"After some time, when the police were in the building, they knocked on the door. The teacher said 'you're going to have to show me some ID before I open this door' and they slid a badge under. She acted very heroically. She was amazing."
Natalie Hammond was shot through the leg as she blockaded a locked door with her body. Another staff member ran down corridors warning that there was a gunman on the loose.
Mrs Hochsprung had rushed out of her staff meeting towards the source of the shooting with her deputy and the school psychiatrist Mary Sherlach. Only the deputy survived as the gunman turned his weapons on them in a corridor.
Diane Day, a school therapist, who was in the meeting with Mrs Hochsprung and Mrs Sherlach said: "We were there for about five minutes chatting and we heard, 'pop pop pop'. I went under the table. They didn't think twice about confronting or seeing what was going on."
Gerald Stomski, a senior local council official, said: "She died protecting the children that she adored so much. It's just incredibly shocking.''
To alert staff members that a shooting was under way, a staff member at one stage switched on the public intercom system. The terrifying sounds of the bullets and screams saved many more lives, according to Maryann Jacob, the school librarian.
"The intercom went off and we could hear a kind of scuffle going on in the office. I thought it had been set off by mistake, so I called the office and the school secretary answered and said it was a shooting. As far as I am concerned she is a hero as she was right where it was happening.
"I yelled 'lock down' in our room and ran across the hall to tell them to lock down too. We locked all the doors and covered the windows and got all the kids to somewhere where they couldn't be seen. We told them to sit down and be quiet.
"We had 18 kids with us and four adults. The kids were all scared – they usually are even when we do drills. These are young children and it can be scary. We tore up bits of paper and handed out crayons to give the kids something to do."
Victoria Soto, who had taught at the school for five years and was described by one distraught 10-year-old as "really nice and funny", offered the ultimate sacrifice, throwing herself between the gunman and her pupils.
One first-grade pupil described how Ms Soto moved all the children away from the door and towards the back of the classroom when it became apparent that there was a gunman in the school.
He said the man then came in through the door and shot Ms Soto in front of the children. The boy, who spoke to CNN, said he was then able to run directly past the shooter and out of the school.
Jim Wiltsie, Ms Soto's cousin, said: "She put herself between the gunman and the children and that's when she was tragically shot and killed. I'm just proud that Vicki had the instincts to protect her kids from harm. It brings peace to know that Vicki was doing what she loved, protecting the children and, in our eyes, she's a hero."
There was a brief lull in the shooting, apparently as Lanza reloaded the weapons that were found later at the scene. By the time he finished his murderous rampage, he had fired off more than 100 shots and 20 children and six adults were dead or dying in the bloodbath. With his final shot, he killed himself. The spree had lasted barely 10 minutes.
Parents had already received an automated phone-call with the unthinkable news that a shooting was under way at the school. They left their homes and work, jumping into cars, speeding to a scene that was already in police lockdown.
Shocked mothers and fathers were led to the nearby fire station. Evacuated children were also brought there during the course of the day for emotional, tearful reunions. By late morning, heavily armed police swarmed into the Lanza home, where they found the first victim of the rampage.
Back at the fire station, even as cartoons blared incongruously in one room for the children, another room was set aside for grief-stricken parents who were still waiting for their sons and daughters.
As the light of the winter's day faded, so did their hopes. With local clergymen and professional grief counsellors present, 20 sets of parents were told on Friday evening that there would be no reunion.
Among the dead was was Ana Marquez-Greene, 7, who only moved to Connecticut from Canada with her family this year.
Her father, Jimmy Greene, is an American saxophonist – who spent the last three years in Winnipeg, working at the University of Manitoba's school of music. The family moved to Sandy Hook in July, with Ana and her older brother Isaiah enrolling at the school. He survived the shooting.
Lanza also shot Jesse Lewis, a six-year-old who loved riding horses and doing maths. His devastated father Neil Heslin, 50, recalled how on the morning of the shooting, he dropped him off at school and went in happily – looking forward to making gingerbread houses later that day in class.
"He was just a happy boy. Everybody knew Jesse. He was going to go places in life. He did well in school. He was terrific with animals," said Mr Heslin.
Many of the bereaved chose to spend the night at the fire station, too torn apart by sorrow and grief to go home alone.
Monsignor Robert Weiss, of St Rose of Lima Catholic Church, was among those consoling the bereaved.
At one stage, he tried to explain to a young boy that his sister would not be coming home. The boy's response, he said, with tears in his eyes, was simply: "I'm not going to have anyone to play with any more."