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World mourns with Newtown

Updated 7:15 pm, Monday, December 24, 2012
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When Adam Lanza shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing 20 students and six adults, Newtown was thrust onto the world stage.

As dozens of TV trucks and hundreds of reporters descended on the woodsy town, at times straining the patience of residents in their darkest hour, people across the country and world endured their own wave of horror, anger, grief and sense of helplessness.

The events that will forever alter Newtown left an uncommon imprint in the hearts and minds of many people watching TV broadcasts and reading news stories.

Hugs for Newtown

Sherrie Read, 46, stared at the TV in horror.

Since getting home from work Dec. 14, the saleswoman for a paper firm in Sanford, N.C., hugged her children -- ages 17, 16 and 13 -- and settled before the TV in a near trance.

Newtown, peaceful and charming, seemed to be enduring all the pain of the world.

Read wanted to wrap her arms around all those parents. She wanted to erase the images she feared would be forever seared into the minds of the kids.

Instead, she felt helpless.

Years ago, in the initial shock of being diagnosed with breast cancer, she felt the uplift afforded by letters sent from family, friends and even strangers.

"They didn't even know me," she said. "And I'm just this little thing. I couldn't believe it."

Friday night she didn't sleep. Saturday morning, she learned the Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire Department, site of breathless reunions and the delivery of the most devastating of news, had been running its annual Christmas tree sale: Balsam firs $45 to $70; Fraser firs $55 to $60.

She made a phone call. Someone hundreds of miles away, she learned, had already bought two.

She wanted to hug the community.

"How many trees do you want?" a woman asked.

"The rest of them," she said. "Twenty-four."

A story like no other

Moritz Koch, 34, thought he was done for the day.

A reporter for the Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of the big daily newspapers in Germany, he generally gets up in his Brooklyn apartment early enough to write his stories before his 10 a.m. deadline -- 4 p.m. in Munich.

By 9:30 a.m. Friday, he was brainstorming stories for the upcoming holidays. Then his wife told him what happened.

He didn't think much of it at first. Since he arrived in the U.S. in 2008, there have been several mass shootings. Then his editor called, telling him this time might be different. He rented a car and battled the Friday afternoon traffic, arriving in Newtown after sunset to find a sprawling crowd at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church.

"I did a lot of stories on the economic crisis," Koch said. "I talked to a lot of sad people. I listened to a lot of sad stories. But never anything like that."

In the dark, cold night, he studied the bewilderment and grief on residents' faces. He watched them press up against the windows, peering into the packed church. He watched them collapse into each other's arms, some sobbing, some singing lightly. He listened to the organ, its doleful notes drifting outside.

In the coming days, he would try to explain to Germans the gun culture in America.

Tonight he would tell them about Newtown.

Grieving through poetry

When work got out in Dublin, Ireland, Paul Horan, 43, caught the evening train home, 50 miles into the countryside of Carlow.

Everything was normal until he turned on the Sky News telecast.

"I thought I was watching a horror film," he said. "I was looking at the telly going, `That can't be true!' "

Horan, a father of three, is a professor at the Trinity College School of Nursing and Midwifery. He has coached countless students on handling grief. He is also a published poet, having penned his first poem in 1998, a playful tribute to a Dublin pub, which he keeps in a book in his house.

Watching the news that night, he recalled the worst thing he's ever had to do: Inform the parents of a 14-year-old boy that their son was dead.

Midnight passed.

Feeling angry and helpless, he logged onto his computer. He did all he could think of.

"Sleep, dear children, sleep," he began his poem. "You have now gone to heaven as Angels ..."

Tears for the victims

Bob Aldrich, 56, avoided all the early TV and Internet coverage. But Saturday morning, as he sat down with a pot of coffee in his home three blocks from the Mississippi River, he picked up the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

"Our hearts are broken," the newspaper read.

Aldrich, a father of two, isn't the sort who goes around shedding tears, he said. But the older he gets, the more these stories affect him.

There was the funeral in January where a grieving mother wailed so loudly over her son that it sent chills down his spine.

There was the news story from September, in which a just-fired worker in Minneapolis returned to his office and gunned down four employees and a UPS delivery man.

After breakfast, Aldrich drove his Toyota Corolla the half-hour to a sporting goods store where he would be selling snowshoes. Later, returning home, he tuned into National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."

The show ended with a call to remember the 26 students and teachers.

He pulled over to the side of the road and wept.

A garden of grief

John Sinopoli, 58, spent months planning for Friday.

A math and science teacher at Mattacheese Middle School in Yarmouth, Mass., he'd finally bring his students out to build their big project: a phenology garden, so they can measure when flowers bloom each spring on Cape Cod, as a study in climate change.

Friday morning, out beneath the cafeteria window, they placed the stones in a circle and packed the inside with dirt.

Hours later, driving home from school, Sinopoli learned what happened. Then came a flurry of emails, as school officials discussed the coming week. One day, students and teachers would wear the green and white of Sandy Hook Elementary School (some would accidentally wear the blue and yellow of Newtown High).

But Monday morning, as the first funerals in Connecticut were set to begin, Sinopoli led 26 students into the cool rain. Each carried a white flower to the "Peace Garden."

"We had just a few words," he says. "It wasn't a prayer service."

At the exact hour they were building their garden, they recalled, something elsewhere went horrifically wrong.

They laid down their flowers.

Driven to action

Watching MSNBC across the country, Christina Ritzmann couldn't shake off her memories of childhood.

Growing up in Westport, she would peer into her older sister's kindergarten class, desperately wanting to begin her education. Decades later, when the mental illness afflicting her sister got really bad, Ritzmann was forced to adopt her sister's children.

Now a producer of TV commercials in Pacific Palisades, Calif., the 64-year-old found herself fending off a familiar feeling.

"This just stopped me in my tracks," she says.

She thought of her adopted son, Chris, who was "so damaged and depressed" from his early years, despite four therapy sessions a week, that he overdosed on drugs at 22, taking his life.

Back then, Ritzmann wanted to do something big to prevent drug abuse, but she felt paralyzed with grief.

Now, two decades later, she penned a letter to Newtown, vowing she would do what grieving residents maybe cannot.

"I will not quit until I feel like I've done all I can to eradicate the possibility of anyone, anytime, anywhere having access to these killing machines," she said. "I promise to fight for you as I've never fought before. I will write letters, protest, petition, travel to Washington if need be."

Signs of sorrow

A week had passed when J.P. Robinson, 38, and his four friends drove up from Morristown, N.J. By then, it seemed the grief of all corners of the Earth had formed a funnel into Sandy Hook.

"Thanks to our heroes," blinked a highway sign. "God bless our angels."

Nearby, 26 blue angels were staked into the turf. Then came American flags, then the far-off floodlights, illuminating the stuffed animals, bouquets and notes piled up over the bridge at the heart of Sandy Hook.

One sign bore maybe 600 text messages from teenagers.

From there, orange cones led up the small hill, past the antique graveyard, down to the grotto of grief that had sprung up in front of the Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire Department.

A generator hummed, powering the string of lights hanging from tents covering 26 Christmas trees.

People paused, silent, before the trees. Some dabbed their eyes. Some blessed themselves. Some lit a candle.

"My son's name was on one of the trees over there," said Robinson, a father of two.

Jack.

He offered a visitor a tissue.

Earlier, his friend asked a teenager if there was anything he could offer.

"He just turned and ran to him," he said. "Wrapped his arms around him and sobbed."

tloh@ctpost.com; @timloh; 203-382-3965