After the sorrow, Newtown is determined to recover
My life was already hectic that chilly Friday morning of Dec. 14, 2012. While wrapping last-minute Christmas presents and studying for final exams, I received a call from my best friend from high school telling me something very bad had happened in our community of 27,000—Newtown, Conn.
I rushed to the TV, and tears filled my eyes as images of Sandy Hook Elementary School flashed onto the screen above the stunning headlines:
“Gunman enters Sandy Hook school, still at large.”
“Reported 20 dead, still missing an entire classroom.”
My thoughts jumped to my father, Gary Stoller, a journalist for USA Today who writes about travel and the airline industry. But because of our proximity to the school, I knew he had to have been racing to the scene and, at that point, I thought the shooter was still on the loose. When he didn’t pick up, I called my mom and younger brother. Both were frightened.
My brother was safe, an hour and a half away at the University of Connecticut, but my mom was in our house, just 15 minutes from the school. She had received an automated email message from the Newtown school system about a disturbance at the school. She sat frozen in front of our TV.
Three hundred miles away in State College, Pa., I was paralyzed with fear, anger and disbelief.
Hours later, time froze again, when I heard the CNN news anchor announce the name of the alleged shooter.
My classmate at Newtown High School, Adam Lanza, was the suspect in the murder of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook. We learned later that he had also killed his mother, Nancy, in her bed. Adam Lanza killed himself at the school as police closed in.
Among the adults killed were the school principal, Dawn Hochsprung, and the school psychologist, Mary Sherlach, who were shot as they tried to stop Lanza’s rampage.
It was the second deadliest school shooting—behind only the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting where 32 people were killed—and one that led many shocked Americans to demand tougher laws that would keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.
I remembered Lanza as the quiet boy with sunken eyes who walked silently along my high school hallways, almost clinging to the walls for support. He was the boy who carried a briefcase instead of a backpack and who wore checkered button-downs that seemed much too big.
It’s impossible to describe the crippling fear I felt that day, both dreading and anticipating the list of the victims. I would learn later that I had connections to some of the dead and survivors.
One of the children attended my church, and the fourth-grade education assistant was a family friend who hid in a closet after hearing her co-workers’ screams over the school intercom before they died. My dad knew Nancy Lanza, the shooter’s mother, from his visits to My Place, a popular restaurant.
The days after the shooting were what normally would have been a happy time, with the holidays fast approaching and a winter break at home. This time, I was fixated on what had happened, unable to study for my finals.
My thoughts were on Newtown and instead of studying, I attended and spoke at a candlelight vigil on campus. I spent hours in front of the TV, watching all of the coverage, including President Barack Obama speaking to my community from the high school stage where I had performed in musical theater. I even saw my dad sitting in the tenth row.
I took my finals in a daze. My mom drove to Penn State to pick me up four days after the massacre—a day earlier than she had planned, just because she wanted me home.
After a five-hour drive through Pennsylvania and New York, my mom and I decided to take the back roads to our house to avoid the media circus our town had become. Driving across town on Route 302, which usually takes only 15 minutes, took twice that long because of reporters, photographers and curious onlookers, whose vehicles caused mass congestion.
With more than 20 funerals in a span of a couple of days, cars would pull over to the side of the road repeatedly to allow a funeral procession to pass.
As much as I wanted to close my eyes to the madness going on around me, I knew I had to see the site for myself.
Though the road to the school was blocked, I stopped at the makeshift vigil less than a half-mile from the school—a mass of candles, teddy bears, Christmas wreaths and flowers. I was so overcome with emotion that I couldn’t get out of my car. Instead, I drove around town and looked at all the handmade signs and private vigils—such as 26 angels or Christmas wreaths placed on hills and “We are Newtown: we choose love” signs on front yards.
That was the moment I knew that no matter how resilient I became, I could never utter the name of my hometown without getting pity-stares and horrified looks.
In the months since, I’ve performed dual roles: as a longtime resident of the town who identifies with the tragedy, but also—as much as possible—as a detached reporter, trying to understand how others are coping.
People ask me what will allow Newtown to recover, as if they are talking about a strange, foreign wasteland.
My answer is simple—the people. And here are their stories:
If Gene Rosen hadn’t gone home to feed his cats, he never would have heard the staccato sounds of gunshots he at first thought were fireworks.
Instead, he would have still been sitting in the Sandy Hook Diner, a half-mile from the elementary school. Six months later, sitting in the same diner, Rosen closed his eyes and remembered.
He had intended to order his usual omelet and fruit cup on that Dec. 14 but felt guilty about not feeding the feral cats he had taken into his loft.
At about 9:30 that morning, Rosen was standing in his loft, just a third of a mile from the school, when he heard the unusual noise.
“I thought to myself, ‘How obnoxious that someone is doing fireworks at 9:30 in the morning,’ ” he said.
A few minutes later, he walked outside and saw two boys and four girls sitting in a circle on his lawn with a woman in the middle, clearly out of breath—a scene he thought was a bizarre “Cub Scout sit-in.” The woman, a school bus driver, told Rosen that there had been an incident at the school. She didn’t know much else.
Rosen could see they had been crying and were very disturbed, so he took them inside and offered them juice and told them to play with the toys in his grandson’s toy chest.
“The two boys just started wailing. They started saying, ‘We can’t go back to school because our teacher is dead,’ ” Rosen said. “I was astounded.”
All Rosen knew was what one of the 7-year-olds had told him: there was “a big gun and a small gun.” Rosen said he and the school bus driver then began to phone the children’s parents to pick them up.
Hours later, Rosen said a frantic parent knocked on his door, looking for her son.
“For me, that was the most distressing moment,” Rosen said. “I said, ‘No, he’s not here.’ ”
Rosen learned later that the woman’s son had died in the massacre.
That day turned Rosen into a different person. Like many local people, he said, he has been kinder to others.
For Rosen, this means greeting customers almost daily at the Sandy Hook Diner from his regular table near the front window.
He hands out two iconic pictures to people who he said look sad over their morning coffee—one of a hut in the woods near his house engulfed by a heavenly beam of light, and one of a blue jay perched atop the playground at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Rosen is trying to move on in other ways. He’s using “tapping therapy”—rubbing or tapping specific points on the body to relieve anxiety—on a suggestion from a friend to heal after the events of that day. He has also adopted the motto, “Out of calamity there is providence.”
“At 70,” he said, “I never imagined my world being radically changed in one day.”
The grieving stepfather
At about 9:50 that morning, Bill Leukhardt received a call on his company cell phone from his editor at The Hartford Courant.
There were reports of a shooting at an address in Newtown, 10 miles from where the reporter lived in Danbury. The editor gave him the address and told him to go.
He didn’t recognize the address. It wasn’t until he arrived at 12 Dickenson Drive— Sandy Hook Elementary School—that he realized it was the school where his stepdaughter, Lauren Rousseau, was a substitute teacher.
Standing outside in the chilly December air, Leukhardt and his fellow reporters heard that a janitor might have shot himself. There was a tremendous police presence. No one outside of the school had any idea what had happened.
Then came word of a mass shooting. When he realized that his stepdaughter might have been inside, Leukhardt called the Courant for a backup and headed home, overcome with emotion. It wasn’t until 1 the next morning that he learned that his stepdaughter had been killed.
“At first, it was like, ‘Oh my God, what happened here?’ Then, it’s a blur,” Leukhardt said months after the shooting. “Now it’s been long enough that it’s not a blur anymore. It’s just painful.”
Soldiers go off to fight in Afghanistan and come back without a scratch, he said, yet his stepdaughter could go teach first grade and be killed. He can’t understand it.
After living in the same house as Rousseau for 20 years, Leukhardt said he is still trying to adjust to not seeing her every day. He now lives with his wife in the house, but Lauren’s empty room upstairs is a painful reminder.
“We don’t dwell on it every minute, but you are aware of it,” he said. “She’s gone, she’s dead.”
The first officer on the scene
Newtown police officer William Chapman refuses to paint a picture of that day.
“We saw what it was—a massacre,” he said. “I don’t like to help people create an image. It’s not something anybody should see in their imagination.”
When Chapman arrived at the school, he could hear gunshots from inside the classrooms.
He had to put aside his emotions because he had work to do.
It was only after he had run out of people to help that he sat down and came to grips with what had happened.
“It was an all-encompassing heartbreak,” he said. “It was kind of heartbreaking that you could actually feel. It was physical, it was mental, it was emotional.”
Months later, Chapman sees the people of Newtown placing a higher value on one another. People take the time to talk to each other, and they don’t dismiss strangers as easily as they used to.
“People in Newtown are very resilient,” Chapman said. “… The desire to move on and move forward is there.”
The small-town reporter
It was the image that so many Americans tuned to their television sets and computer screens had seen by 10 a.m. that day: wailing children with their hands glued onto the person in front of them, while a frantic security escort stares straight ahead and moves them away from the school.
It is now an iconic image, but it was one that Shannon Hicks, The Newtown Bee’s associate editor, did not want to take. The photo thrust her weekly newspaper—circulation 8,000—into the spotlight.
Hicks said the images she captured broke her heart, yet they were an important representation of what happened that morning.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m proud of it, but I am proud that the local hometown newspaper was right there on the scene,” Hicks said. “We captured something that would change this town forever.”
What started as a joyful morning—The Bee had just won a local radio contest to get a free lunch for the staff—turned into chaos after a report on the police scanner of a gunman at the elementary school two miles away.
Hicks rushed to the scene as a reporter and photographer, but she decided quickly to change her role after reporting on and taking photos of the event.
She was a volunteer firefighter, and she decided that working as a first responder was more important than pursuing the story as a journalist. Hicks walked to the Sandy Hook firehouse, next door to the school, and changed into her firefighting gear after backup had arrived from The Bee.
Only after helping hysterical parents locate their children did Hicks shed her firefighter coat and boots and go back to The Bee’s office for “the beginning of a few weeks of crazy, steady long hours.”
What sticks most with Hicks about that day was The Bee’s emphasis on the basics of journalism. Though there were conflicting reports about the shooter’s identity many news outlets—including CNN, Fox News and The Huffington Post, initially misidentified the shooter as his older brother, Ryan—Hicks said The Bee’s editor, Curtiss Clark, insisted on not publishing a name online until his reporters verified it.
“He reminded us of this basic fact, and it was fantastic because we didn’t get it wrong, and other national outlets did,” Hicks said.
Partly because of a March 4, 2013, story in The New Yorker magazine about the newspaper’s response that day, more people now know The Bee exists. The article chronicled the newspaper’s continuing coverage of the shooting.
But Hicks said the paper is still trying to focus on news and events affecting residents of Newtown, covering town meetings and doing features on residents—celebrating milestone birthdays and students winning scholarships.
Hicks tries to lock up her emotions when she writes about the tragedy.
But away from work, she said, “the tears sneak up on me unexpectedly. It’s not just that morning, but it’s what happened since—the 26 families that have been directly affected, as well as how the town has changed. It gets to me.”
In the wake of the tragedy, many Newtown residents sought spiritual guidance. Almost every congregation lost members in the shooting or were directly affected in other ways.
For the clergy, the services immediately after the tragedy would be the hardest they would ever have to perform.
Shortly after the shooting, the pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church, Rob Morris, realized grimly that the church bulletins he had ordered for the Dec. 16 Sunday service came with the words “See, your son lives.”
For congregation members who had lost children, this would have been too much to bear. Morris quickly ordered new bulletins.
Not only have church members grown more closely knit, they been much more welcoming of new members.
“It used to be by the time I got my robes off, everyone was gone,” Morris said. “Now, I hang out after for coffee hour. It became much more of a community.”
The pro-gun activist
Since the Newtown shootings, Matt Bottali has received threatening emails, phone calls and Facebook messages. Bottali, of Ridgefield, 20 miles from Newtown, is a firm believer in the right to own firearms.
“People like myself have been villainized, demonized and harassed because we value our civil rights,” Bottali said.
On Aug. 8, Bottali drew media attention when he posted on his Facebook page that he would openly carry a firearm into the Newtown Starbucks as part of “Starbucks Appreciation Day.” That event was organized by gun owners nationwide to support a longstanding Starbucks policy allowing people to carry guns into their stores in states where it is legal to do so.
“Yes, folks, it’s true. I will be at the Newtown Starbucks tomorrow,” Bottali posted. “I might even bring my family to show you how human I am. Come down, meet me and my friends. I guarantee there will not be a safer public place in all of CT.”
Bottali said he was simply going to meet friends in Newtown who have also been isolated because of their pro-gun stance. It was not meant to be a rally, he said.
“This is why I went there, to support them,” he said. “They have been demonized in their hometown.”
He said the Newtown shooting had become a catalyst to enact “almost insane” gun laws. On April 5, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy signed a law that bans assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, the types used in Newtown.
Bottali said the school shooting encouraged him to buy a gun for self-defense.
He said he has been to Newtown many times to speak to groups that want to toughen gun laws, primarily Newtown Action Alliance, which was formed after the massacre to promote tighter controls on guns.
Bottali said he, like the NAA, wants to prevent mass shootings. But he said anti-gun people are not willing to discuss the issue.
“Guns are a part of life and definitely part of the United States culture,” Bottali said. “From what I can see, they have an irrational fear of guns.”
On Sept. 17, nine months after the shooting, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz issued a “respectful request” to customers not to carry firearms into Starbucks stores, reversing the company policy. However, store employees will not ask customers who come in with guns to leave, nor will there be signs in the stores explaining the new policy.
The gun-control activist
For weeks after the shooting, Newtown resident Darren Wagner stood in protest outside of the National Sports Shooting Foundation, just 10 minutes from Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The Foundation aims to promote, protect and preserve hunting and the shooting sports, and is the trade association for the firearms industry.
Wagner said, “We’ve got an amazing core of volunteers that go every Thursday or Friday just to let them know we are here.”
In the days following the shooting, about 100 protestors showed up with green and white signs bearing the elementary school’s name, but the number has since dwindled.
Wagner was among the Newtown residents who started the Newtown Action Alliance.
On the day of the shooting, Wagner’s son, Tristin, was in a Newtown High School math class when reports of a shooter at the nearby elementary school came in. Wagner said Tristin had to lie on the floor for two hours with his teacher telling him to hold his head below the window to avoid possible gunfire.
“I didn’t know for two hours if he was alive. It was too close,” Wagner said. “To know Adam Lanza drove past the high school was too close.”
Wagner said it was then that he knew he had to do something to promote change. The Alliance doesn’t want to take people’s guns away, he said, and it supports the Second Amendment. But it wants responsible gun ownership.
Wagner and his family have spent months lobbying Congress with newfound friends, such as former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was wounded by a shooter who killed six people in Tucson, Ariz., on Jan. 8, 2011.
But still, they have been met with resistance. Since families of the victims have joined the NAA in their quest, many opponents of gun control have said they are just “using” their children and the tragedy to push an anti-gun agenda. The National Rifle Association coined the term “The Connecticut Effect” to protest Newtown’s movement, Wagner said.
He said his organization has no hidden agenda – it just doesn’t want tragedies like this to befall anyone else.
“The thing they don’t realize,” he said, “is that when people are affected by gun violence directly, we have nothing to lose.”
The folk singer
In the months after the shootings, the healing going on in Newtown seemed to be a repeat of history for Peter Yarrow. He stepped up to the microphone with guitar in hand at a Feb. 10 “Concert for Newtown,” just as he had done in 1963 for the civil rights march on Washington.
Yarrow, of 1960s folk group Peter, Paul and Mary, performed for Newtown residents alongside Francine Wheeler, who lost her 6-year-old son Ben in the shooting.
“It was highly emotional, very tearful, but it was like the same kind of feeling of standing up for justice or righteousness in the face of cruelty and injustice from the movements I’ve been a part of,” Yarrow said in a phone interview.
Yarrow, who lives in Manhattan, said he was asked by many people to come to Newtown to create a space for people to mourn together and to come together as a community.
“All of these forces combined to create the clear call for me to do something that I’ve done many times in the past, which is to create a gathering of sorts, whether it’s to co-create a march [against the Vietnam war] on Washington for half a million people in 1969, or something small,” he said.
For Yarrow, the tragedy was not just about the existence of guns and assault weapons, but about eliminating being hurtful to others, he said.
In his four days in Newtown, Yarrow said he saw the capacity of the town to be proponents for change in the United States.
“Nobody recovers from an event such as this,” he said, “but new aspects of a person grow that weren’t there before. I just saw the extraordinary power of a town to come together to say, ‘We will not be defeated by this.’ ”
The church visitor
As a United Methodist volunteer from Harrisburg, Pa., Steve Drachler was shocked by what he saw when he entered Newtown four days after the shootings.
As he pulled into the Newtown United Methodist Church parking lot, less than a mile from the school, he saw a human chain formed near the church and connecting nursery school.
Though there were only five or six people in the parking lot, they were blocking the area in front of the nursery school and near the entrance to the walkway to the church to keep the media out.
No one was threatening, Drachler said. They were simply asking people coming to the church, in very polite language, what they wanted.
“They had made the decision early on that the sanctity of their sanctuary was number one,” Drachler said. “They wanted to keep their sanctuary a place where people could feel safe.”
Drachler, a former newspaper reporter and government press secretary, said he spent two months, on and off, in Newtown, aiding the congregation with media relations. He helped the church look for messages of healing coming out of the terrible tragedy, and he found reporters to spread those messages.
Though he was only a visitor, Drachler said he felt dramatically affected by the tragedy.
“I couldn’t describe the overwhelming sadness,” he said. “Not anger, but sadness. It just hung like a cloud in the whole valley.”
The first selectman
At 71 years of age, Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra works seven days a week conducting local government business.
After Dec. 14, Llodra spent about 100 percent of her work time dealing with something related to the shooting. For example, she kept daily contact with the families of victims, and she created a mail-handling center for the packages the town received from the world. Now, she still spends 30 to 40 percent of her time on these tasks.
Recently, the town approved the building of a new Sandy Hook Elementary School at the site of the existing school—a project that will cost almost $60 million. Town officials had decided not to use the old Sandy Hook school, built in 1956, mainly because they feared it would further traumatize the students and faculty who lived through the shooting.
Currently, classes are conducted at the former Chalk Hill Middle School in the neighboring town of Monroe, which was vacant at the time of the shootings.
Though Llodra said the students are adjusting well, many of the teachers decided not to return after the tragedy.
“It’s important to remember that this killer went to Sandy Hook School with the intention of killing teachers and killing kids,” Llodra said. “The fact that some teachers got killed and others didn’t is just random. Some teachers are struggling with the idea that that person, Adam Lanza, was coming to kill them.”
Many teachers are haunted by the fact that Lanza had 600 rounds of ammunition he didn’t use. If the police hadn’t responded so quickly, Llodra said, those bullets could have been used on them.
But the support the town has received is astounding, she said.
“We had trailer trucks of things coming to our town every day,” Llodra said. “At one point, we had 45,000 stuffed teddy bears. That’s just teddy bears.”
Newtown went on to receive about 60,000 stuffed animals, 30,000 boxes of crayons, skateboards, bikes and paper—enough that the community had to find a warehouse to store the gifts. Money also came pouring into the town, with more than $11 million through the United Way Foundation and $5 million through other charities, she said.
Much of these resources have gone to the victims and survivors, she said, but shortly after Christmas, families were invited to take what they wanted from the stuffed animals and school supplies. All gift items remaining after local distribution went to charities, hospitals, orphanages and child protection service organizations.
Though Llodra still struggles with the reality of the shooting, she sees the town starting to find its balance.
It’s not that people are moving on, she clarified, but they’re learning to integrate the horrible thing that happened into their lives.
In the days after the tragedy, Sandy Hook Hair Company’s owner and operator, Bonnie Fredericks, said her shop housed an ad hoc therapy group while the media chaos was going on outside her window.
Clients flocked to the store not just for a haircut but for a safe environment in the days after the shooting. There, grief was normal and crying was accepted.
For Fredericks, the day of the shooting was like 9/11.
“It may have been on a smaller scale,” she said, “but the impact was just as great.”
Fredericks’ salon is in Sandy Hook’s center of commerce, where townies converge to drink coffee while overlooking the Pootatuck River. That day, the salon workers witnessed police cars and black SUVs flying down the street, helicopters hovering overhead and parents running toward the school.
But eventually Fredericks, 47, said she knew she had to get away, for her own sanity. As a lifelong Newtown resident who had attended Sandy Hook Elementary School, she thought the tragedy hit too close to home.
A month after the shooting, Fredericks flew to Chicago to attend a motivational seminar because she was so consumed by grief in Newtown. She said she needed to leave town because she wasn’t allowing herself to feel happiness after knowing some who had lost so much in the shooting.
“You feel guilty if you have too much joy in your life,” she said, “because you know your neighbor is suffering.”
The piano teacher
Sandy Hook Elementary School students saw and heard horrible things during the shooting, but that didn’t stop them from playing music at Julie’s Piano Workshop in the days, weeks and months that followed.
Julie Cook, the owner and operator of the business, said the structure and familiarity of the piano lessons were crucial for the young students.
“We’ve just continued to do what we’ve always done,” Cook said, “and I felt like that’s a really important thing to do, to keep the kids playing music. Especially in the days right afterward, we felt it was important to be safe adults where they could talk to us and express their feelings through music.”
Glenn Muschert, an associate professor of sociology, criminology and social justice studies at Miami University in Ohio, has researched school shootings, not just in the United States, but around the world.
Although he said he had not studied the Newtown case and was reluctant to comment specifically about the shooting’s effects there, he said that often, generally, the national response to school shootings can be dissatisfying for Americans.
“Normally, what happens in the U.S. is we are very focused on blaming and punishing,” he said in a phone interview. “The frustration in these cases is that there is no one to punish and no one alive to blame.”
A town ends up feeling as if it basically is left to its own devices to restore itself, Muschert said.
It is also important to consider the family of the shooter, he said. He studied a school shooting in a small town in Germany, where the mayor instructed the townspeople not to ostracize the family of the shooter.
In the United States, families of mass murderers end up moving somewhere else, and no one cares that they have lost someone of their own, too, Muschert said.
In the United States, he said, “we have an easier time dehumanizing the people instead of understanding that they experienced a major tragedy themselves.”
My dad, the USA Today reporter
Even as a seasoned journalist, my dad, Gary Stoller, said he was traumatized by the events of Dec. 14.
“It was the most powerful thing I’ve ever covered” in 41 years as a journalist, he said.
He said he had always identified with how “safe and good” the community of Newtown was, the place where his kids had grown up.
My dad was devastated. During a television broadcast for Gannett TV, he broke down crying.
“If he had shot people that were not so young, the world wouldn’t have felt it as much,” my dad said. “It was something about the kids being 6 years old.”
Like many others, he said he felt guilty about his own grief because of the anguish the victims’ families would have to go through for the rest of their lives.
“Every time you would wake up in the morning, you would think of the kids,” he recalled months later. “You knew that you needed time, but time wasn’t coming fast enough. Now, time has really helped.”
Newtown will recover, my dad said, but not fully. There have always been disasters and tragedies, but with time has come healing. Newtown will move on, too, but it will not forget.
For many outsiders, the tragedy has left a mark on our town’s name. Like “Columbine” and “Virginia Tech,” it gets a reaction.
But for my dad, Newtown remains the warm, welcoming town where he moved with his wife, Terry, his 2-year-old son, Ben, and me as a 4-year-old.
Newtown is a place where my little brother can forget and leave his brand new baseball glove at a ball field five years ago, and find it in the same spot two days later. Newtown is a place where a stranger rang our doorbell at midnight last year, simply to return a wallet, all the money and valuables inside, that my dad had left at an exercise club earlier that day.
Newtown is a lot of things, he said.
And while it may be defined by the tragedy in other people’s eyes right now, Newtown’s story—because of its people—won’t end there.