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In Newtown, a season of peace destroyed

From Rose Arce and Soledad O'Brien, CNN
December 17, 2012 -- Updated 1047 GMT (1847 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Signs of holiday cheer replaced with calls for prayer and mourning
  • Initial trauma turns to grief as Newtown families come together
  • Parents begin to face the new reality in Newtown, Connecticut

Newtown, Connecticut (CNN) -- The center of Newtown couldn't be more decked out for the holidays. It seems like there are ribbons and wreaths for every lamppost and door. Lights sparkle from trees, and a big wood sign calls residents to the local firehouse to pick up even more holiday sprigs.

That same firehouse is where parents ran in panic after receiving robocalls and texts about a shooting Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School up the street.

Now, the high spirits of the holidays have been darkened. Signs in storefronts have stopped declaring holiday cheer and are calling instead for prayer and mourning. The firehouse is ringed by first responders greeting members of the community coming to drop flowers and notes. A sign pointing to the entrance of the local grade school now marks the scene of a massacre of young children.

A day that started like any other

Candles burn next to a lighted tree at a makeshift shrine in Newtown, Connecticut, commemorating the victims of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. Candles burn next to a lighted tree at a makeshift shrine in Newtown, Connecticut, commemorating the victims of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012.
Reaction to Newtown school killings
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Reaction to Newtown school killings Reaction to Newtown school killings
Vigil held for shooting victims
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Parents mourn in Sandy Hook

Since the shooting, tears fall easily in this town, especially after police released the sober list of names of the dead. It was striking as much for the birth dates as for the length. The column "DOB" listed 20 born in the years 2005 and 2006. Then six names of female educators young and middle-aged. The 7th birthday of a little girl named Josephine Gay happened last week. Another named Charlotte Bacon would have turned 7 in February.

Remembering the victims

"I don't think there are words," said a woman as she broke down in tears when she came to leave flowers for the dead. Her daughter also went to the elementary school. She had listened to the robocall about the shooter, feeling anything but calm. Like a lot of mothers in the area, she had been swept by panic wondering which school had an unfolding crime and whether her child might be among those injured or killed.

Another woman, Miriam Espinoza, fell to the grass and wept when she saw the flowers around the elementary school sign post. She clutched her third-grader, recounting her later relief as she discovered her child was not among the victims. "But those other mamas," she said in Spanish, "how did they go forward?"

It was as if an entire town suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. No one was left unmarked since those harrowing minutes Friday of sorting out who had and had not survived, and the many hours since of figuring out how close danger had touched their lives. Was their child OK? What about their neighbor's child or the teacher who once taught their teen?

Laura Phelps and husband Nick have a first and third-grader at the school. They rushed to Sandy Hook Elementary to see if their children were among the injured or dead.

"When we got our children and I saw my son's teacher, they were like ghosts, but they were incredibly composed; they were calm; they had their sheets with them checking off, making sure each child went with their parent," she said. "They did everything possible to keep our kids safe, and I wish I had known when I looked at their faces just to say thank you because I have my children."

Teacher: 'I wanted to be the last thing they heard, not the gunfire'

As mourners placed flowers for the dead, their friends could barely put together words. Alexander Galinsky walked with his head dipped as he thought of a friend who lost a son. "Last night we felt something unusual because they didn't respond on the phone calls, messages," he said of his friend. "Last night they basically called us and (there were) just a few words. (Their son is) not with us anymore."

This family had come from England two years ago but quickly fit into a tightly knit community. Galinsky said he began considering them close friends almost overnight. "We cannot comprehend with our minds and our hearts," he said.

Will Obama take action on gun violence?
Newtown residents meet with counselors
Students struggle to understand tragedy

Some parents' voices still rattled as they uttered that awful word "lockdown," something children practice with their teachers. It is a modern addition to a fall season of fire drills and other safety lessons for the littlest of schoolchildren. But the word shocked adults when it took on real-life meaning.

Library clerk Mary Ann Jacob fell into the arms of her husband as she recounted hearing crackling over the school's public address system. "I thought they'd left it on so I just called the office to tell them we could hear them," she said. A member of the office staff told her about the shooter so she and some other staff hustled the kids into a storage closet. "We practice these lockdowns; we have to have several by a certain date," she said. She handed out pieces of paper and crayons to the cluster of 6-year-olds to keep them quiet.

Latest developments

Jacob said the door was kept locked while the principal and other staff were in the halls fighting off an attack. They were so scared of what was unfolding that they didn't even open the door for police when they finally came knocking. "I made him show his badge," she said.

The town's initial trauma has turned to mourning as churches opened their doors for counseling and services, and a vigil for one teacher drew hundreds. On Sunday, there were even more services as well as a planned visit by President Barack Obama, all as the investigation unfolds into how a day that began with promises of some first-graders building gingerbread houses after school had ended this way.

One woman who came with flowers said she was there because she didn't know what else to do. Her friend could only offer this response: "I think it's coming to these memorials, I think it's being close from one family to another. And just being there. You know just hugs; I don't think there are any words."

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