Local mourners gather for vigil at Groton school

Groton - On the day of the first funerals for those killed in Newtown, hundreds gathered on the Fitch High School football field here Monday night to pray, pay their respects and come together as a community.

It seemed only fitting, given the nature of the tragedy, that a moment of silence for the victims - 20 of whom were first-graders - was pierced by a child's oblivious yell of joy from a nearby parking lot, proof perhaps that not all innocence has been lost in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.

Beth Fernandez, who brought her three school-aged children to the event, said the shooting, just across the state, "hit close to home."

"It's even harder now, with the media putting out the names, ages and faces of the children," she said. "It hurts that much more."

Each of her children - Zach, 17, Kailey, 13, and Colby, 9 - attend a different Groton school, each of which has had a lockdown drill this year.

"I'm a nervous person anyway, so always, even before this (shooting), when the kids leave for school you think, 'What if today?'" Fernandez said. "It's the perfect example of the need to teach children what to do in the event of an emergency."

In remarks to those assembled near the 50-yard line of the Fitch Falcons' football field, Town of Groton Mayor Heather Somers said it was humbling to have such a turnout "come together to support in a loving manner."

"We all grieve together tonight for those 20 beautiful children, six brave adults and mother, taken from us without warning," she said, adding, "We see firsthand that life is truly a gift and can be taken at any time."

Though the shooting raises many questions about issues such as mental illness, gun control and school safety, Board of Education Chairwoman Kirsten Hoyt asked the group to focus on recovery, including within the local community itself, where "a large piece of sense of security" was taken away.

"It will take a nation to comfort and console those families," she said.

The vigil began with the lighting of candles, one for each person killed Friday morning. From there, people carrying lit candles waded through the crowd, lighting the more than 300 held by community members. Prayers were said and those assembled joined together to sing "Silent Night" and "Amazing Grace."

As the singing ended, Kelly Paige clutched her daughters, ages 16 and 21. Alyssa Paige is a sophomore on the Fitch cheerleading squad and Bethany Paige is a student at the University of New Haven, studying to become a teacher.

"There are no words to express the feeling that is every parents' fear," Kelly Paige said as she wiped away tears, a still-lit candle in her other hand. "Schools are supposed to be safe and we feel our kids go there to learn and grow."

s.goldstein@theday.com

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