Funerals at Christmastime: Newtown Prepares to Mourn

With the names of the dead released, the depths of the tragedy begins to sink in and residents of the town wonder how they will cope with the loss

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Nate Rawlings

A photograph of the official deceased list

UPDATED: Dec. 16, 2012

The village of Sandy Hook is what most would expect of a small town: neighbors leave their doors unlocked at night and residents not only know your name, they also know what kind of car you drive. Generations of families in Newtown, Conn. — of which Sandy Hook is a part — learned to read, write, add and subtract at Sandy Hook Elementary. “It’s one of those schools where you would see it in a movie,” says Shaun Piccirillo, 26, who attended the school — as did nine other members of his family. “It’s tiny, it’s very homey. It’s not like your overgrown school that you see nowadays everywhere.”

But on Friday, the fabric of the town began to unravel at that very school as residents got word of the massacre that took the lives of 12 girls, eight boys and six adult women who worked at the school. (Another adult — the gunman’s mother — was found dead elsewhere; the gunman, identified as Adam Lanza, took his own life.) On Saturday evening, the Connecticut State Police released the names of those shot and killed in the Sandy Hook school: Charlotte Bacon, 6 years old; Daniel Barden, 7; Rachel Davino, 29; Olivia Engel, 6; Josephine Gay, 7; Ana Marquez-Greene, 6; Dylan Hockley, 6; Dawn Hochsprung, 47; Madeleine Hsu, 6; Catherine Hubbard, 6; Chase Kowalski, 7; Jesse Lewis, 6; James Mattioli, 6; Grace McDonnell, 7; Anne Marie Murphy, 52; Emilie Parker, 6; Jack Pinto, 6; Noah Pozner, 6; Caroline Previdi, 6; Jessica Rekos, 6; Avielle Richman, 6; Lauren Rousseau, 30; Mary Sherlach, 56; Victoria Soto, 27; Benjamin Wheeler, 6; Allison Wyatt, 6.

There would be heartbreaking tales of the death of the school principal Hochsprung and that of first-grade teacher Soto, who friends said was shot as she shepherded her class into a closet, shielding them just as they came into the gunman’s sights. The staff was close-knit and loyal to the children in their care. “A lot of teachers stick around until they have to pretty much retire because they really love their jobs,” says Piccirillo. “It’s not like one of those jobs like you’re worried about going to work every day.” As the horror sinks in and the funerals begin, the village and Newtown will forever be changed. There was even talk that the school may never reopen.

(MORE: 20 Brighter Stars: Shocked Connecticut Town Mourns Its Slain Children)

The little world of Sandy Hook came apart at 9:30 a.m. on Friday, when the assault commenced. Around 10 a.m. that day, Piccirillo was preparing for his usual day-off routine: taking his 9-month-old daughter for a walk near the playground and hiking trails outside of Sandy Hook Elementary. He opened his window and heard what sounded like low-flying helicopters. Outside of his home on Sunnyview Terrace, Piccirillo saw squad cars, guns and ammo. At the end of his cul-de-sac, his neighbors were collecting onto Riverside Road near the volunteer firehouse. Dickinson Drive — the only road leading into and out of the school — was blocked. He recalls his incredulity: “You gotta wipe the cobwebs out of your eyes and take a second glance to make sure that this is really going on.”

It was into the firehouse that the surviving children and school staff were slowly ushered and within the building, Monsignor Robert Weiss, a pastor at the nearby St. Rose of Lima Church, stood with law-enforcement officials as they helped parents and students navigate the chaos. “Some of them went running this morning,” Weiss tells TIME, describing children fleeing the school. “They were scared and there was a house farther up the street where some of them went.” Officials organized the students by grade and made lists of those still missing.

(PHOTOS: Connecticut Community Copes After Shooting)

Weiss recalls how the roll was called. “They assembled all the children in the fire house and then … they had the teachers there and the teachers wrote down the names of all the children and the ones who were unaccounted for went into another room — the parents went to another room — and wrote those names on the list.”

(MORE: Am I Safe? Talking to Your Kids About the Sandy Hook School Shooting)

There would be no school bell sounding an end to the day that Friday. Instead, there were sirens echoing through the normally quiet streets of Sandy Hook. There would be no school buses taking kids home for the weekend. Instead, there were police officers escorting grief-crippled mothers still waiting for their husbands to arrive. As one woman hobbled to her car, she turned to the police officer to her left — her eyes wide and glassed over. She shook her head and said, “I can’t believe they’d do this to children.”

“There’s really no words,” says Weiss. “It’s just been a lot of hugging and crying and holding onto each other. I think that’s basically what people can do. People are sharing wonderful memories about their children. A lot of them brought a picture of their child with them [to the firehouse]. I don’t think the reality or the magnitude of this has absolutely settled in at all.

“You know, any time a young person dies, it’s the worst thing in the world. To have a whole group of young children like this — so innocent — I have never had to deal with this before. I’ve dealt with many individual deaths but never a situation like this.

“You just pray that the Lord is going to give you the grace,” he adds as he begins to grapple with a problem. What will he say at the funerals? “In my head, I’m thinking about these services that we’ll have to do next week and what can you possibly say to anybody that’s going to help them or make sense about this?” He continues, “You teach forgiveness, but it’s going to be very difficult for people to forgive this person — to even understand why they would do something like this …”

As the priest begins to walk away, he says, “Keep us in your prayers, will you?”

MORE: A Town of Broken Hearts: How Newtown Residents Cope with Grief