Victims’ families visited Newtown memorial one last time
Updated 1:39 pm, Tuesday, January 1, 2013
The group came under police escort, with roads leading to Sandy Hook's main intersection blocked only for them.
On Friday, parents and family of the 20 children and six educators killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School were invited to the massive memorial – one that received thousands of candles, handwritten cards from around the world, and enough stuffed animals to fill a warehouse.
The victim's relatives read the messages and remembrances. Take something if you'd like, they were told. And so some did.
That night, without fanfare, the town began to move forward.
After the relatives left, a crew of 20 town employees began carefully removing the snow-covered memorial. Saturday morning – 15 days after the massacre – the remembrances were gone, and the intersection was almost as it had been.
"It has a very kind of an empty feel, but a positive feel," said Gary Seri, who recalled the Friday events. "But you know that for us to heal as a community that had to end, the memorials had to come down."
Without choice, those who work in Sandy Hook's village became part of the chaotic scene from the first moments. Traffic to the vigil made commutes and deliveries a headache. Many knew the victims and their families, and faced constant reminders of the tragedy.
When the droves of reporters finally left, residents could breathe a bit, Seri said. And that was a big step forward.
Seri is general manager of the Stone River Grille – the restaurant across the street from the vigil and a short walk from the school. He remembers seeing the first police car race to Sandy Hook Elementary School the morning of Dec. 14.
"It was just cop after cop after ambulance," waitress Lori Nespoli recalled last week. "Twenty ambulances were coming in and none of them were coming out."
She saw panicked parents rushing to get their children. Days later, the sirens she heard again for funeral processions were a painful reminder.
Many of the young victims came to the restaurant with their parents. One loved looking out the restaurant windows – onto where the memorial for her and others later stood.
Two days after the shooting, Seri said he questioned God: Why do I have to swallow this every second of the day? Why do I have to be here?
He didn't want to work that Sunday, but did anyway. Seri was on the back deck when a waitress told him a woman inside was crying. Fearing the worst, he bolted inside.
The Catholic Church had received a bomb threat. Armed guards evacuate mass. "They won't even less us pray," the terrified parishioner said through tears.
"I grabbed her hand," Seri said at a restaurant booth, "and we prayed right out loud here.
"To me it was God answering me that day, saying 'You go to work, I'll send you what your purpose is that day.'"
Many others in Sandy Hook have found their purpose, too.
There was the day Seri learned his restaurant would host a meal for one of the victim's families. His hand was shaking, wanting to make things perfect.
Then churches called offering nearly two dozen volunteers. They'd handled parking, security, assisted staff, and took care of other last minute worries.
The day of the meal, there was a serious electrical problem, and dispatch for the repair company was on the West Coast. But a woman on the call told Seri her father-in-law lived 10 minutes away. He'd be at the Sandy Hook restaurant immediately.
The Stone River Grille restaurant delivered Christmas meals to five of the victim's families, and "there was a list of people wanting to pay for them," Seri said.
As he spoke, a young man came in with a white envelope. His grandmother worked in Sandy Hook and wanted to make a donation to help. Could it please be shared with the right people, he asked?
The story here isn't about the restaurant or any one person, Seri said. It about the love Sandy Hook residents have for one another and how that's come through in the most difficult moments.
"If they knew enough to help me without me asking, can you imagine what they've been doing for families?" he asked Sunday.
"And I know firsthand they've been doing an awful lot."