A president wept for his nation. A nation weeps for its children.
Little ones: 5 and 6 years old, 7 and 8, 9 and 10.
Twenty of them, shot to death, victims of one more lone gunman, yet another in the grim annals of American mass murderers who turn their incomprehensible, inchoate rage on innocents, randomly extinguishing lives, on this occasion evil stalking the corridors of a small-town elementary school in Connecticut.
Each time, the boundaries of the unimaginable are pushed further into the realm of sinister and barbaric and explosively nihilistic. It is a grandiose infamy by intent, the sickened preying on the defenceless.
To ask why is to extract sense from the senseless. There isn’t any.
Eighteen youngsters pronounced dead at the scene. Six adults slain — teachers, principal, guidance counsellor. Two more children succumbed to their injuries in hospital. Shooter dead, presumably of a self-inflicted gunshot. His mother dead at another location, believed to be the shooter’s residence. A brother taken in for questioning in New Jersey, handcuffed.
On Friday morning, a day like any other, parents had dropped their kids off at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, a postcard-pretty New England hamlet about 90 kilometres northeast of New York City, seemingly on the other side of the moon from targeted catastrophic violence.
Within the hour, in horror and disbelief, they were receiving robocalls and text messages of a crisis unfolding at the school, shots fired, lockdown, come now.
Local police got the 911 call just after 9:30 a.m. Screeching to the scene, sirens blaring, cops and troopers entered immediately. “Their focus was to search for students, faculty and staff,” said Lt. J. Paul Vance of the Connecticut State Police. “They did search every nook and cranny and every portion of that school.”
What they encountered was monstrous.
The carnage was concentrated in two classrooms in one section of the building.
The shooter — identified in media reports as 20-year-old Adam Lanza, son of a Sandy Hook teacher — seemingly knew where he was headed and zeroed in, firing repeatedly, round after round, shell casings ejecting, strewn across the floor.
He was dressed in black battle fatigues and a military vest, according to a CNN source.
The weapons, as details begin to emerge, though not yet confirmed by authorities: a .223 Bushmaster (a military-style semi-automatic rifle) and two pistols, a Sig Sauer and a Glock.
A scream was heard over the intercom, one child later recounted.
One teacher mustered students into a room and locked the door.
Alarmed parents jumping into their cars, descended on the kindergarten to Grade 4 school, rushing with pounding hearts from homes and offices.
In the Inferno section of The Divine Comedy, Dante describes “the anteroom to Hell” as a vestibule for souls in limbo. On this morning, in Newtown, Hell’s anteroom was the local fire hall, where anguished parents, grandparents and siblings were directed to await the most wrenching of news.
My child? Mine? Mine? Mine?
Eighteen little bodies that need to be formally identified by the medical examiner.
Twenty-seven fatalities in all, and a vice-principal injured.
Safety is an illusion. Children can’t always be protected from harm, no matter how vigilant their families and teachers. At this school, there were magnetic locks on the door and visitors had to be buzzed in from the office — after 9:30 a.m.
But who could have envisioned such a horror? Even in a country where mass shootings are hardly unknown, including those in schools, to unleash deranged wrath at elementary school-age kids, the most vulnerable and defenceless among us, is beyond the sociopathic pale.
“An ordinary kid,” said one friend of the suspected shooter.
It’s so frequently the same epitaph for those who commit massacre: benign and banal individuals to the outside world, something dreadful roiling beneath.
“You can never be prepared for this kind of incident,” Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy told reporters as local churches began arranging memorial services. “What has happed, what has transpired at this school building, will leave a mark on this community and every family impacted.”
Children who survived the frenzy of bullets emerged from the school afterwards, the youngest walking with their hands placed on each other’s shoulders, lucky ones reunited with parents overcome by relief.
One boy was delivering the attendance record to the office when the chaos erupted: “I saw some of the bullets … going back into the hall that I was right next to, and then a teacher pulled me into her classroom.”
His mother, stroking her son’s hair: “I’m just so grateful to the teacher who saved him. He had bullets going by and she pulled him and another child into a classroom.”
Mergim Bajraliu, a 17-year-old high school student, said he was at home nearby when he heard two shots.
He and a neighbour ran to the school to find his 9-year-old sister, Venesa, a fourth-grader.
What he saw were two students covered in blood being carried out of the building, one of whom looked like his sister.
“My heart sank,” he said.
Then he spotted her unharmed and wrapped her in a tearful embrace. “I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ ”
A youngster told NBC: “I was in the gym and I heard, like, loud booms and the gym teacher told us to go in the corner and we huddled. We all heard these booming noises and started crying. So the gym teachers told us to go into the office where no one could find us. Then a police officer told us to run outside.”
Another teacher yanked students into a washroom.
Richard Wilfrid, a shaken parent: “I could try to explain it, but I’m sure I would fail. There’s no words that I could come up with that would even come close to describing the sheer terror of hearing that your son is in a place, or your child’s in a place, where there’s been violence. You don’t know the details of that violence, you don’t know the condition of your child and you can’t do anything to immediately help them or protect them. It is a powerless and terrifying experience.’’
Fear, as related by 8-year-old Alexis Wasik, a third-grader: “Everybody was crying. I was a little scared and felt sick to my stomach.”
Her mother, Lynn: “I am still in a daze. My heart is in a million pieces for the children.”
Friday’s attack was the deadliest mass shooting at a U.S. school since a 2007 sniper attack at Virginia Tech left 32 people dead.
A country turns reddened eyes to its consoler-in-chief.
“We’ve endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years,’’ an emotional President Barack Obama told a news conference. “And each time I learn the news I react not as a president but as anyone else would, as a parent. That was especially true today. I know there’s not a parent in American who doesn’t feel the same overwhelming grief that I do. The majority of those who died today were children, beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old.”
Obama had to halt to compose himself, wiping tears from his eyes.
“They had their entire lives ahead of them, birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own …”
Again, Obama had to stop and swallow hard.
“As a country, we have been through this too many times, whether it is an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theatre in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago. These neighbourhoods are our neighbourhoods, and these children are our children.’’
Obama said he, like other parents, would go and hug his daughters a little tighter.
But for the parents of 20 murdered children, there is nothing but the yawning ache of a lifetime unfolding ahead without their precious lost kids.
“May God bless the memory of the victims and, in the words of Scripture, heal the broken-hearted and bind up their wounds.”