Saturday 25 November 2017

Survivors' guilt plagues brave Sandy Hook teacher a year on

Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis, the first-grade teacher who survived the Sandy Hook massacre.
Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis, the first-grade teacher who survived the Sandy Hook massacre.

Jon Swaine New York

A year has elapsed since Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis hurried 15 terrified six- and seven-year-olds into their classroom lavatory, locked it from the inside, and tried to stop them from crying while their friends were being shot next door. But it might just as well have been yesterday.

"It's the first thing I think of. I think of it all day long, and it's the last thing I think of before I go to bed," said Ms Roig-DeBellis (30), in an interview on the anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.

Cramped into the three-by-four-foot space, Ms Roig-DeBellis told the children she loved them, in case it was the last thing they heard.

"There are bad guys out there," she told them. "We need to wait for the good guys."

One said he knew karate, and offered to lead the group out. Another asked for her mother. But if one of them cried, they would all start crying, so whatever happened, they had to stay quiet.

"I think about what we went through that day," she said. "On my mind constantly is what my students went through, and I think about the lives that were lost. So it's not so much a realisation that a year has passed. It truly is a constant, all the time."

At about 9.30am, Adam Lanza, a local 20-year-old with mental health problems and a fixation on mass killings, shot his way through the front of the school.

The blackout paper Ms Roig-DeBellis had forgotten to remove from the window of room 12 after a recent lockdown drill may have fooled Lanza into thinking her classroom was empty so he passed by on his killing spree.

When police later stormed the building they found him dead after shooting himself in the head.

Officers eventually knocked the door of Ms Roig-DeBellis's hiding place, but she refused to believe they were the "good guys" whose arrival she had recklessly promised, demanding they slide their badges under the door.

Finally, a key was found, and they were freed. Like so many before her, now she is plagued by survivors' guilt.

"It weighs so, so incredibly heavily on me," she said. "I just feel incredibly fortunate to be here."

Ms Roig-DeBellis intends to be back in the classroom come August. But for now, the priority is "having the ability to get out of bed in the morning". (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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