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Grief consumes Sandy Hook as national media fill village on day after school shootings

By Brian Hallenbeck

Publication: The Day

Published December 16. 2012 4:00AM   Updated December 16. 2012 11:53AM

Newtown - People here shared their sorrow with the world Saturday.

Their grief was raw and unrehearsed, and time and again they shared it without reservation, perhaps understanding that the gunman who'd taken their children the day before had just as surely stolen their peace.

The village of Sandy Hook was obscure no more.

All day long, traffic crawled down Church Hill Road toward its intersection with Washington Avenue. To the right, St. John's Episcopal Church, a sturdy little stone structure, filled at noon with mourners and reporters and cameramen who all but outnumbered them. A quarter-mile up ahead stood the cordoned-off crime scene, Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 first-graders and a half-dozen adults had been slain.

"Visitors Welcome," read the sign at the top of the school's driveway, next to the firehouse.

Inside St. John's, the Rev. Mark Moore tried to help his parishioners cope. He'd shown no inclination to remove the TV cameramen, some crouching in the church's aisle and even at the altar, their lenses trained on the mourners, particularly the children.

"I had very little time to prepare for this," Moore said afterward. "But matters of evil are part of the Christian understanding of the world. … This was a time when evil was demonstrated."

In the face of such evil, he said, the Christian view is to surrender to the power of good, to respond not with vengeance but through love.

"This is my church," Chuck Paulsen said upon exiting, struggling to get the words out. "I'll bet some of those kids who died belong to this church. I guarantee you I'll know some of them when they let the names out. If I don't know them, I'll know their parents or their grandparents. …

"What's the word - heinous? That's what this was. The hardest thing to do is to forgive the boy. But you have to say he needs love, too. … The kids he shot - you can't describe them."

Paulsen's wife, Lee, helped found the church's food pantry more than 25 years ago.

"I don't want to believe it," she said of the tragedy. "There are no words."

Two young sisters arrived at the church with their mother and grandparents and patiently submitted to interviews. They'd come from the neighboring town of Monroe to pay their respects.

Twelve-year-old Milly Delaney was asked if she was scared.

"No," she said. "We know the guy who did this is not here now. We feel safe. It's very sad to think someone would do this."

Anna Delaney, a year younger than Milly, explained that a relative of a friend was among the victims.

Donna Brenner of New Fairfield, a former Newtown resident, said she came to the service in an attempt to make some sense of the massacre and to honor the heroic response of the school's teachers.

"This is such (a) beautiful town with such beautiful people," she said. "If it can happen here …"

Brenner teaches art at an elementary school in Danbury and noted that Sandy Hook Elementary's security system couldn't keep it safe.

Townspeople had gathered at St. Rose of Lima, the Roman Catholic church down the road from St. John's, at a Friday night vigil. On Saturday, many returned, adorning a memorial with flowers, stuffed animals, a doll, a basketball and a soccer ball. A short walk away, parishioners prayed at a statue of the Virgin Mary, an Ave Maria shrine "dedicated to loving parents by their children and families."

Inside the church, easels supported posters covered with messages: "Danbury Stands With You," "We will never forget," and "Heaven gained many beautiful and special angels today."

"May God hold you so tightly," began another. "May our own community and nation come together to prevent this from happening again. You are all angels. And we need to honor you with our actions."

Hours after the service at St. John's, the Connecticut State Police released the identities of the victims, with spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance pleading for the media to respect the privacy of the grieving families.

Dr. H. Wayne Carver II, the state medical examiner, took questions, dispelling earlier reports about the type of weapon that had been used. It was a rifle, he said, and all of the victims had been shot multiple times at close range.

The next briefing would be in the morning, Vance said.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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Vigils in the region

• 6:30 p.m. today, Montville High School auditorium. Speakers will include Mayor Ronald McDaniel, schools Superintendent Pamela Aubin and others. Battery-operated candles or glow sticks are allowed. No real candles.

• The town of Old Saybrook will hold a candlelight vigil from 6 to 7 tonight on the town green. Bring your own candles. The vigil will be followed by a community meeting for parents at 7:15 p.m. at the Old Saybrook Senior High School regarding school safety, returning to school on Monday, and suggestions on how to process this tragedy with children.

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