Picture of heroism in the face of tragedy emerges as Newtown grieves for fallen

Mon, Dec 17, 2012, 00:00

As US president Barack Obama arrived in Newtown last night, details about the horrific devastation caused by 20-year-old Adam Lanza, and the heroic actions by teachers to save their students, emerged from the bucolic, comfortably middle-class Connecticut town whose name, like that of Columbine, will be forever linked with infamy.

Dr H Wayne Carver II, the chief medical examiner in Connecticut, delivered a shocking forensic recounting of the massacre in which 20 children and six teachers were gunned down at an elementary school by Lanza, a troubled local man who used his mother’s legally purchased weapons to commit the second-worst school shooting in American history.

All of the children killed, 12 girls and eight boys, were first-graders, aged either six or seven. He said they had been shot multiple times, suffering anywhere between three and 11 wounds.

Dr Carver said the injuries to the children were so devastating that he took the unusual step of having their parents identify their bodies by viewing photographs, to spare them the shock.

Attempt to disarm

Janet Robinson, the superintendent of schools in Newtown, located 60 miles northeast of New York City, said the Sandy Hook Elementary School principal Dawn Hochsprung (47) and the school’s psychologist, Mary Sherlach (56), were killed as they rushed headlong at Lanza, trying to disarm him.

Victoria Soto, who at 27 was thrilled to have landed her first full-time teaching job at the school, had hidden her first-graders into closets and cabinets after she heard the gunshots down the hall.

When Lanza entered Ms Soto’s classroom, she told him her students were in the gymnasium and he shot her dead.

“She put herself between the gunman and the kids,” her cousin James Wiltsie, a police officer, told ABC News.

The parents of Anne Marie Murphy (52), another of the slain teachers, said they were told by police she had also been shot while trying to keep the gunman away from her students.

Other teachers hid with their students in closets or huddled in classrooms until police officers swarmed the school and told them it was safe to come out.

Troubled loner

A still unclear portrait of the shooter was slowly emerging, painting him as a troubled loner who some claim had Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism.

While uniformly described as academically bright, Lanza was socially awkward and did not socialise with peers. Police say the weapons he brought to the massacre – two semi-automatic pistols and a .223 calibre Bushmaster rifle – were bought legally by his mother, Nancy, who was the first to die.

Police say Lanza shot his mother in the face in the sprawling Colonial home they shared, then drove to the nearby school, broke glass at the entrance to gain entry and systematically began shooting.

Why Lanza chose to attack the school remains a mystery.

Initial reports that Ms Lanza had taught at the school were discounted by Ms Robinson, the school superintendent. It is still unclear whether Lanza attended the school as a child. His family lived in the town at a time when he would have been in that school’s age group, but he was also home-schooled for a period, according to friends of Ms Lanza. Police said they had uncovered evidence that pointed to a motive, but they did not release that information.

Dr Carver said the victims were shot with the semi-automatic rifle, which is a military weapon. An assault rifle ban, which was instituted in 1994 but expired in 2004, would have prohibited the legal purchase of such a weapon.

Dr Carver’s descriptions of the wounds also suggested Lanza was armed with high-capacity magazines which carry large quantities of bullets.

Police have identified at least five guns Ms Lanza had acquired legally and had properly registered. Friends and acquaintances described her as a gun enthusiast who had taken her son to a local shooting range.

Ms Lanza and her husband Peter, a tax specialist with General Electric, split up about a decade ago and divorced in 2008. Their other son, Ryan (24) lives in New Jersey.

It remains unclear what steps, if any, Ms Lanza took to safeguard those weapons, and why she would keep them in a home she shared with a son who by several accounts had serious mental health issues.

Ms Lanza’s brother, James Champion, is a former police officer in Kingston, New Hampshire, where she grew up and where gun ownership is common.

‘She prepared for the worst’

Ms Lanza’s former sister-in-law, Marsha Lanza, told the Chicago-Sun Times Ms Lanza kept the guns for personal protection. “She prepared for the worst,” she said.

Ms Lanza was a regular at My Place, a local bar where she was fond of craft beers and a glass of wine. Friends and acquaintances described her as outgoing and friendly. But her landscaper, Dan Holmes, told the Washington Post that she was loath to let people inside her house, and had on one occasion brought a gun outside to show him.

Peter Lanza issued a statement expressing sympathy for the victims and suggesting the gunman’s family was at a loss to explain why he carried out what, besides the 32 people killed at Virginia Tech in 2007, was the worst school massacre in American history. “We are in a state of disbelief and trying to find whatever answers we can,” Mr Lanza said.

“We, too, are asking why.”

While most of the families of the victims grieved in private, the father of six-year-old Emilie Parker braved the scrum of cameras and spoke with poignant eloquence about his daughter and what had happened to their idyllic New England town.

Robbie Parker said his last conversation with his daughter was in Portuguese, which he had been teaching her, on Friday morning as he prepared to leave for work and Emilie got ready for school.

“She told me good morning and asked how I was doing. Said I was doing well. She said that she loved me. Gave me a kiss and I was out the door,” he said.

Even as Mr Parker described his daughter as a beautiful, thoughtful girl, he paused to think of the gunman’s family.

“I can’t imagine how hard this experience must be for you, and I want you to know that our family and our love and our support goes out to you as well,” he said.

He said he hoped the tragedy visited on his family and town would “not turn into something that defines us, but something that inspires us to be better, to be more compassionate and more humble people”.

National grieving

Portraits of other victims emerged. Ana Marquez-Green (6) was the daughter of the accomplished jazz saxophonist Jimmy Greene, who moved his family to Newtown in July. Mr Greene’s son hid in another classroom and was not hurt.

The pictures of many of the children, and their teachers, filled the front pages and television screens across the US, part of a national grieving process which some say will give impetus for gun control in a country where nearly half the citizens own guns.

Mr Obama’s visit to Newtown is hardly his first in the wake of a mass shooting. He visited Fort Hood in 2009 after a US army psychiatrist opened fire and killed 13 soldiers and civilians at the Texas army base. The president went to Tucson, Arizona, last year after a man shot and killed six people and wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 12 others outside a supermarket. And last July he went to Aurora, Colorado, after a man opened fire inside a cinema during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises, killing 12 people.

President shaken

While Mr Obama’s role as comforter-in-chief is well established, it remains to be seen what he can do legislatively to reduce the number of mass shootings that have increased in America even as violent crime in general has declined.

The president was visibly shaken on Friday, when he addressed the nation in the wake of the shootings, but up until now he has studiously avoided incurring the wrath of the nation’s rich and influential gun lobby.

Yesterday, many of Newtown’s 27,000 residents flocked to church services, seeking comfort.

“How do we rejoice in the face of so much sorrow?” Rev Peter Cameron asked during his homily at Saint Rose of Lima Church as worshippers, including the husband of one of the teachers killed, listened and wiped back tears.

Outside, a plethora of news media gathered, their trucks clogging the narrow streets of the normally sleepy town, suggesting a presence that will last long after a week of funerals is over.