Newtown residents come together as news of tragedy spreads

Newtown - They come and go in groups of two, three, five out front in the fading afternoon, clutching coffee cups and cigarettes, mostly hushed, occasionally laughing in a self-conscious, strained way, more often shaking their heads.

They have cellphones pressed between ear and shoulder, cold hands stuffed in pockets. They're getting together after work or they're on their way home, in daily routine or by chance.

In this town, dealing with unspeakable tragedy, everyone meets up at Dunkin' Donuts.

The center of town sits at the intersection of Church Hill Road and Queen Street - on the latter, a shopping center offers a Big Y, a liquor store, a CVS, and New England's unofficial joint of choice for coffee and fried dough.

It's about 2 miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School, where a gunman on Friday killed 26 people, including 20 students.

It's not a tiny town - 60 square miles, close to 30,000 residents - but they all seem to agree: Everybody here knows each other, somehow.

Inside, standing with hands on hips or sprawled on the brown faux-leather chairs set up in a semicircle, they watch strangers on TV narrate their lives, their turf, using words like "sleepy" and "tight-knit" over and over.

When asked, they pause to recall the moment of discovery, looking away or at each other for reassurance in sharing the same moment - that shift, the elusive way in which everything is fine, until it isn't.

For Will Schubert and Sean Edwards, both 18, it was between when they went to sleep and woke up Friday morning, around 10, to text messages - friends in lockdown at the high school, broadcasting their plight with quick thumbs.

"Obviously, you're not supposed to text during a lockdown," Schubert says. "But everybody does it anyway."

The boys recently graduated from Newtown High School. They sit in their cars in adjacent parking spaces, talking through rolled-down windows.

Schubert works in the tire department at wholesaler BJ's in Brookfield; Edwards, who works at the doughnut shop, commutes to nearby Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury from his aunt and uncle's home in town.

After the texts, Schubert tuned into the police scanner on his phone and watched the listener tally bloom from a couple hundred to thousands.

Around 3:30 p.m., Edwards is about to call a friend for a rain check: A co-worker is too shaken to take his shift at Dunkin', so he's stepping up.

"He wouldn't ask me to cover if …" Edwards trails off. "He loves to work."

Ashley Sieling, 25, and Theresa Roberto, 20, have just gotten off work - Sieling from her job as a life skills instructor for special needs adults at Ability Beyond Disability in Bethel, and Roberto as an attendant at the Citgo on Route 25. They grew up here.

Sieling went to Sandy Hook Elementary.

The connections and coincidences unfold - the what-ifs and almosts and friends of friends. Schubert's father only recently retired as a cop for Newtown and state police; Sieling's directs traffic for the local fire department.

Her 5-year-old cousin is enrolled in kindergarten at Sandy Hook - the afternoon session.

Later, a group of men, stubbled, a little gruff, gathers in a circle outside, lighting each other's cigarettes. They speculate, make plans for the next day. They recall the 1986 murder of Helle Crafts - the "Woodchipper Murder," for the way in which Crafts' body was disposed - another grisly Newtown legacy.

It's fully dark now. They eye a chopper that lingers overhead.

"I still don't know which of my neighbors lost children," says one, a retired prison guard who declined to give his name.

They grapple with the feeling of tragedy striking surreally close, where you never thought it would, where you couldn't possibly have thought it could.

Earlier, Sieling glanced at her hands. They're still shaking, she said.

"It's different when it's you," she said.

a.isaacs@theday.com

Hundreds stand outside St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Newtown Friday night during a healing service. Inside, the church was filled to capacity. A gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Friday, killing 26 people, including 20 children.
Hundreds stand outside St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Newtown Friday night during a healing service. Inside, the church was filled to capacity. A gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Friday, killing 26 people, including 20 children. Charles Krupa/AP Photo
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