Mourners travel far to gather around Christmas tree memorials in Newtown
NEWTOWN, Conn. (AP) — One by one by one by one, each with fresh heartbreak, hearses crisscrossed two New England towns on Wednesday, bearing three tiny victims of the Sandy Hook school massacre and a heroic teacher in a seemingly never-ending series of funeral processions.
"The first few days, all you heard were helicopters," said Dr. Joseph Young, an optometrist who attended one funeral and would go to several more. "Now at my office all I hear is the rumble of motorcycle escorts and funeral processions going back and forth throughout the day."
As more victims from the slaughter of 20 children and six adults were laid to rest, long funeral processions clogged the streets of Newtown, where Christmas trees were turned into memorials and a season that should be a time of joy was marked by heart-wrenching loss.
At least nine funerals and wakes were held on Wednesday for those who died when gunman Adam Lanza, armed with a military-style assault rifle, broke into the school last Friday and opened fire on their classrooms. Lanza also killed his mother at her home before committing suicide.
At St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, mourners arrived for Caroline Previdi, an auburn-haired 6-year-old with an impish smile, before the service had even ended for Daniel Barden, a 7-year-old who dreamed of being a firefighter.
"It's sad to see the little coffins," said the Rev. John Inserra, a Catholic priest who worked at St. Rose for years before transferring to a church in Greenwich. He returned to his old parish to comfort families wondering how a loving God could permit such carnage, and has attended several of the funerals.
"It's always hard to bury a child," Inserra said of the seemingly unrelenting cycle of sorrow and loss. "But these are important moments, an opportunity to come together, to remember that we have new angels in heaven."
Hundreds of firefighters formed a long blue line outside the church for little Daniel's funeral. Two of his relatives work at the Fire Department of New York, and the gap-toothed redhead had wanted to join their ranks one day.
"If me being here helps this family or this community just a little bit, it's worth it," said Kevin Morrow, a New York firefighter and father of two young girls. "He wanted to be a firefighter, as any young boy wants to be."
Family friend Laura Stamberg of New Paltz, N.Y., whose husband plays in a band with Daniel's father, said that on the morning of the shooting Mark Barden taught his son to play a Christmas song on the piano.
"They played foosball and then he taught him the song and then he walked him to the bus and that was their last morning together," Stamberg said.
At Caroline's funeral, mourners wore pink ties and scarves — her favorite color — and remembered her as a Yankees fan who liked to kid around. "Silly Caroline" was how she was known to neighbor Karen Dryer. "She's just a girl that was always smiling, always wanting others to smile."
Across town, at Christ the King Lutheran Church, hundreds gathered for the funeral of Charlotte Helen Bacon, many wearing buttons picturing the 6-year-old redhead. Speakers, including her grandfather, told of her love of wild animals, the family's golden retriever and the color pink.
She was "a beautiful little girl who could be a bit stubborn at times — just like all children," said Danbury resident Linda Clark as she left the service.
And in nearby Stratford, family and friends gathered to say goodbye to Victoria Soto, a first-grade teacher hailed as a hero for trying to shield her students, some of whom managed to escape. Musician Paul Simon, a family friend, performed "The Sounds of Silence" at the service.
Peter Rusatsky, a friend of Soto's family, said he's clinging to his faith and the hope that something positive can emerge from the shooting.
"My wife is a teacher, too," he said. "And I think any teacher would not blink and just do whatever had to be done to protect those children."
In Woodbury, a line of colleagues, students and friends of slain Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Hochsprung, 47, wrapped around the block to pay their respects to the administrator, who rushed the gunman in an effort to stop him and paid with her life. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan attended the service.
"She loved kids. She'd do anything to help them and protect them," said Joann Opulski of Roxbury.
In emotion-charged Newtown, tempers flared as residents of the town of 27,000 navigated the hordes of reporters and camera crews that descended on the town. Some shouted at reporters outside the funerals Wednesday, urging them to leave their town in peace.
Cynthia Gubitose said the shooting and its aftermath have jolted what she described as a quintessential "Norman Rockwell, New England community."
"Nobody knew about Sandy Hook," Gubitose said as she placed flowers at a memorial with bouquets stacked chest-high. "Many of the people that live here like it that way."
The symbol of Christmas took on a new meaning in the town, where one memorial featured 26 Christmas trees — one for each victim at the school.
Edward Kish said he bought a Christmas tree two days before the shooting, but hasn't had the heart to put it up or decorate it.
"I'll still put it up, probably," he said. "It doesn't seem right, and it doesn't seem like Christmas."
Mourners from across the country came to offer condolences. A jazz band from Alabama played at the main memorial site as local children played with a team of trained therapy dogs brought in to provide comfort.
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