Sandy Hook: After the Shooting, a Stricken Town Struggles On

The last of the burials are over, but memorials to the 20 children and 7 adults killed in the Dec. 14 rampage are still growing as Newtown, Conn. ponders how to move past a senseless tragedy

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Craig Ruttle / AP

Members of the Rutter family of Sandy Hook, Conn., embrace early Christmas morning as they stand near memorials by the Sandy Hook firehouse in Newtown, Conn.

On Friday morning, Deanne Komlo was tiptoeing through the memorial on Church Hill Road, repositioning teddy bears — wet, matted and facedown from the morning’s showers — one by one against the base of each of the 27 angel cutouts on the grass hill. Some of the stuffed bears tumbled down as soon as she walked away, but she returned and gently placed them on their backs with their arms outstretched, as if they were waiting to be hugged.

Another woman was going around picking up each candleholder and emptying the rainwater that had collected inside. It would rain again before sundown. When the two women reached the bottom of the hill, they hugged through tears for several seconds. They had never met before, although Komlo has spent several hours at this memorial since it first appeared in the weekend after the shootings. They discussed what more they could do to help: a bake sale? Snowflake crafts? Prayer? While they talked, a third woman went around straightening any angels that had started to lean, trying to resecure them in the softened, muddy ground.

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In Newtown, Conn., memorials to the victims of one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history have sprouted up wherever there is open grass or sidewalk space. The piles of offerings along the streets leading to Sandy Hook Elementary School have grown 3 ft. tall and several feet wide, spilling over and blocking sidewalks. Everyone knows that the piles — filled with sealed letters, new toys, candles and flowers — cannot stay there permanently. But even while Komlo accepts that the memorial she tends will eventually have to come down, she continues to maintain it. Like many in the town, she doesn’t know what else she can do.

It’s been more than a week since 27 people — including 20 children, six school employees and the mother of the shooter — were killed in Sandy Hook, and the community is slowly trying to find a path toward closure. On Friday, a moment of silence, led by Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, was held at the town hall to mark the one-week anniversary of the tragedy. That evening, a vigil at the Fairfield Hills Campus drew more than 1,000 people.

On Saturday, Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra announced that the meticulously maintained memorials would be “gathered and processed into soil that will serve in the foundation of a future permanent memorial.” On Sunday afternoon, the flag at the intersection of Church Hill Road and Main Street was raised to full mast — a position it had not occupied since the shootings on Dec. 14.

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It had been a long week for the town residents, and particularly for the families of victims. More than a dozen motorcades have passed down Church Hill Road since the shootings. While many families had asked that their funerals be private, mourners showed up anyway, waiting in the cold and rain, even if they did not know the victim personally.

Everyone in Newtown knows someone at Sandy Hook Elementary. Their mom worked there. Their friend ran an after-school daycare for some of the students. Their former teachers taught there. No one in the town is untouched. “When someone asks you, ‘Did you know someone involved?’ … It’s Newtown — everybody knows everyone,” resident Jeffrey Keating, 20, says.

In the time since the shootings, Sandy Hook has been inundated with offers of aid. Within hours of the shooting, police officers from across the state raced to the scene, unbidden, to help in any way they could. Just a day after the tragedy, counselors and teachers from nearby states arrived to see if anyone needed advising. Trainers traveled with therapy-certified “comfort dogs” from six states away. Someone from Hawaii sent 26 lei necklaces on ice. High school students baked cookies and delivered them to police officers stationed at the town’s flagpole. Newtown residents raided craft stores in search of green and white ribbon — Sandy Hook School’s colors. One man ran 26 miles Friday morning — a mile for each of the victims from the school. People from across the U.S. donated money to local restaurants, requiring that they give Newtown residents free cups of coffee.

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Doll donations have flooded local churches. “Tons of teddy bears,” Keating, who volunteered to help sort the stuffed toys, said. “Literally, we have rooms in the basement of the church that are stacked 8 ft. tall by 20 ft. deep. I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.”

The last of Sandy’s Hook’s victims was laid to rest on Sunday. Unlike the memorials, which people crowd around daily, the graves of the children do not gather hordes of visitors or gifts. Indeed many of the children and teachers who shared a classroom just 10 days ago have now been buried far apart. Teacher Victoria Soto, reportedly killed while trying to defend her students, was buried in Stratford, Conn., 20 miles to the south. Six-year-old Dylan Hockley’s services took place in Bethel, Conn., while his teaching aide Anne Marie Murphy — who died with her arms wrapped around him, trying to shield him from the bullets — was buried in her hometown of Katonah, N.Y.

On Saturday afternoon, firemen hung a banner outside of St. Rose of Lima Church, where Monsignor Robert Weiss conducted services for several victims this week. The banner quoted the Gospel of John 1:5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

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No decision has been made about the future of the Sandy Hook Elementary School building. Some residents call it a “sacred” spot, while others just want it torn down. (Students from the school will resume classes in January in the neighboring town of Monroe, in a building reportedly being set up as a close replica of Sandy Hook Elementary — where students can find their pens, crayons, notebooks in the exact location they left them on the day of the shooting.) And as the traffic gets lighter and the camera crews and out-of-state cars leave Church Hill Road, Newtown residents hope to return to some kind of normal — although a return to how things were before the tragedy seems far out of reach. “I don’t think we’ll ever get back to normal so long as all of us who live in town remember,” says Matt Cole, 24, one of the organizers of Friday’s vigil. “Maybe three or four generations down the road, the town will get back to normal.”

Just after noon on Sunday, as a final police motorcade passed through town, patrons of the Sandy Hook Diner on Church Hill Road turned away from the counter and looked out the window. Pedestrians stood still and waited, not moving until the vehicles passed. Later, after the last recorded church bells had rung and the rumbling of police motorcycles had faded away, high school musicians set up on the street outside of a downtown coffee shop and began to play Christmas carols. Across Church Hill Road, a man dressed as Santa Claus stood near the comfort dogs — both, presumably, providing the same service. Mourners still arrived with toys and flowers Sunday night to add to the memorial piles, before they are taken away.

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