Picture-perfect town struggling to understand

Brothers Thomas, 13, left, and Steven Leuci, 9, pay their respects at a memorial for shooting victims near Sandy Hook Elementary School, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012 in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)
Brothers Thomas, 13, left, and Steven Leuci, 9, pay their respects at a memorial for shooting victims near Sandy Hook Elementary School, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012 in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow) (AP)
Posted: December 17, 2012

NEWTOWN, Conn. - This, residents say, is a special town.

Why, exactly? They'll point you to the town's prized flagpole, which stands in the middle of an intersection on Main Street. They'll mention the Newtown General Store, purveyor of locally grown delicacies and piping-hot coffee. They speak fondly of $2 movie nights at the town hall, tree lightings at Christmas, and parades on Labor Day.

Then there's tiny Sandy Hook, a bit of small-town Americana that could have sprung, fully formed, from a Norman Rockwell painting. There's the Sandy Hook Diner, a neighborhood staple since 1935. There's the coffee shop and the toy store. Down the road, there's Sandy Hook Elementary School, which one resident described as "straight out of a movie."

He meant a beautiful picture. But it was at Sandy Hook Elementary that a gunman - identified as former student Adam Lanza, 20 - forcibly entered the school building and killed 20 children and six adults before taking his own life Friday morning. His mother, Nancy Lanza, was later found dead at her home.

On Friday, most of Newtown was a scene of unimaginable horror. By Saturday it was a media circus, with news crews from Boston to Belgium descending on Main Street. Residents who could claim a connection to the shootings disappeared within forests of cameras and microphones.

Slowly, a picture emerged as officials held news conference after news conference: Lanza, forcing his way into the building on Friday morning. Law enforcement officials, breaking windows in their desperation to reach the students. The school's principal, Dawn Hochsprung, who reportedly tried to stop the massacre and was killed herself at age 47.

Newtown, still in shock, chafed under the attention. Motorists yelled at journalists massed at a park to "go home." The local Catholic church, St. Rose of Lima, posted large signs reading "No Press" outside during a Saturday night Mass.

For the most part, however, this community has been stunned into silence. On Saturday afternoon, locals sat quietly inside the Sandy Hook Diner, exchanging wan smiles and hugs with the waitstaff. Residents don't understand what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary on Friday morning, and they're not sure they ever will.

Inside the diner, Dan Zimmerman tucked into a plate of eggs with his wife, Deana, and 8-month-old Lily. Zimmerman has two daughters from a previous marriage who are both Sandy Hook alumnae.

"That school was almost too perfect," Zimmerman, 46, a senior human resources director for ESPN, said Saturday morning. "It's a very tight-knit community."

The couple were waiting for police to release the names of the 26 people killed at the school. They expected to recognize more than a few last names.

"There are degrees of tragedy, and this is the highest degree," Zimmerman said.

Outside, locals clustered in small groups, talking quietly. Cameras swarmed around a young girl of elementary school age until she calmly informed reporters that she did not attend Sandy Hook Elementary. A teenager, her face streaked with tears, pushed past the crowds on the sidewalk. Residents walked toward the school carrying bundles of flowers; florists said they had been fielding orders from as far away as Germany.

The prevailing mood was disbelief: How could this happen, and, more important, how could it happen here?

"A lot of people like being here because it's boring. But deep down they know they can't hide from bad things," said Joe Beier, whose daughter Elise is in the fourth grade at Sandy Hook.

Beier spent 45 frantic minutes Friday trying to find out if his daughter was safe before a teacher called his wife.

"I would not wish that upon anybody," he said. "But by the grace of God, we're here as a family."

Talk to any Newtown resident today, and they'll tell you this is still a special town. The flagpole's base is covered in flowers now, and the town hall is hosting prayer sessions, not $2 movies. But the town soldiers on.

"People are just devastated, but this is a really strong community," said Terry Stoller, who has lived in Newtown since 1996. "We will get through this, but we will not get over this, ever."


Contact Aubrey Whelan

at 610-313-8112 or at awhelan@philly.com, or follow @aubreyjwhelan on Twitter.

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