First responders tell of Sandy Hook school horror

THE gunfire ended; now it was so quiet they could hear the broken glass and bullet casings scraping under their boots. The smell of gunpowder filled the air. The officers turned down their radios; they did not want to give away their positions if there was still a gunman present.

They found the two women first, their bodies lying on the lobby floor. Now they knew it was real. But nothing, no amount of training, could prepare them for what they found next, inside those two classrooms.

‘‘One look, and your life was absolutely changed,’’ said Michael McGowan, one of the first police officers to arrive at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, as a gunman, in the space of minutes, killed 20 first-graders and six adults.

Mr McGowan was among seven Newtown officers who recently sat down to share their accounts of that day. Some spoke for the first time, providing the fullest account yet of the scene as officers responded to the school massacre that has inflamed the US debate over gun control.

It is an account filled with ghastly moments and details, and a few faint instances of hope. One child had a slight pulse, but did not survive. Another was found bloody but unhurt amid her dead classmates.

Teachers were so protective of their students that they had to be coaxed by officers before opening doors. And the officers themselves, many of them fathers, instinctively used their most soothing voices to guide other terrified children to safety.

The stories also reveal the deep stress that lingers for officers who, until December 14, had focused their energies on maintaining order in a low-crime corner of suburbia. Some can barely sleep. Little things can set off tears: a television show, a child’s laughter, even the piles of gifts the police department received from across the country.

One detective, who was driving with his wife and two sons, passed a roadside memorial on Route 25 two weeks after the shooting and began sobbing uncontrollably.

‘‘I just lost it right there, I couldn’t even drive,’’  detective Jason Frank said.

Officer William Chapman was in the Newtown police station along with Mr McGowan and others when the first reports of shots and breaking glass came in early on the day of the massacre. The school was more than three kilometres away. They traveled up Route 25, then right onto Church Hill Road.

‘‘We drove as fast as we’ve ever driven,’’ Mr McGowan said.

They made it in less than three minutes, arriving in the parking lot while gunfire could still be heard.

‘‘I got out of the car and grabbed my rifle and it stopped for second,’’ Mr Chapman said. ‘‘But then we heard more popping. You could tell it was rifle fire. And it was up so close, it sounded like it was coming from outside. So we were all looking around for someone to shoot back at.’’

As the officers converged on the building, the gunfire stopped again. Mr Chapman and Scott Smith made their way to the front entrance.

It was here, only minutes earlier, that a rail-thin 20-year-old named Adam Lanza, armed with a .223 Bushmaster semiautomatic carbine, two semi-automatic pistols and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, had blasted his way through the glass.

Leonard Penna, a school resource officer who had raced to the scene from his office at the Newtown Middle School, entered the school with Sergeant Aaron Bahamonde and Lieutenant Christopher Vanghele, through a side door that leads to the boiler room.

Mr McGowan and two other officers entered through a locked rear door. One of them knocked out the glass with his rifle butt so the rest of the officers could get in.

The halls were familiar to Mr McGowan. He attended the school as a child. But now, they were eerily silent.
‘‘The teachers were doing a phenomenal job keeping their kids quiet,’’ Mr Chapman said.

The officers turned their radios down. They entered the front lobby and saw the first bodies, those of Dawn Hochsprung, the school’s principal, and Mary Sherlach, the school psychologist.

‘‘You saw them lifeless, laying down,’’ Mr Penna recalled. ‘‘For a split second, your mind says could this be a mock crime scene, could this be fake, but in the next split second, you’re saying, there is no way. This is real.’’

The officers went from room to room, urgently hunting for the killer before he could do more harm.

They found a wounded staff member in one room, made sure her co-workers were applying proper first aid and moved on.

As Mr Chapman and Mr Smith approached the second classroom in the hallway on their left, they spotted a rifle on the floor. Inside, they found the gunman, Adam Lanza, dead by his own hand, along with the bodies of several children and other adults.

The officers searched the room for any other gunmen, then began searching for signs of life among the children.
One little girl had a pulse and was breathing. Mr Chapman cradled her in his arms and ran with her outside, to an ambulance.

Mr Chapman, a parent himself, tried to comfort her. ‘‘You’re safe now; your parents love you,’’ he recalled saying.
She did not survive.

Most of the bodies were found in the classroom next door, where, Mr Frank recalled, ‘‘the teacher had them huddled up like a mother hen — simple as that, in a corner’’.

Mr Penna, who was the first officer to enter the second room, found a girl standing alone amid the bodies. She appeared to be in shock, and was covered in blood, but had not been injured. He, not knowing the gunman had been found, told her to stay put.

He ran into the next classroom and saw the dead gunman, with Mr Chapman and Mr Smith standing nearby. State troopers and other officers were now flooding in.

Mr Penna returned to the second classroom, his rifle slung around his chest, grabbed the uninjured girl by the arm and ran with her out to a triage area set up in the parking lot.

With state troopers coming in, the officers began to evacuate the children who were still behind locked doors. But many of the teachers, seeking to protect their students and following their own training, refused to open up.

‘‘We’re kicking the doors, yelling ‘Police! Police!’’’ Mr McGowan said. ‘‘We were ripping our badges off and putting them up to the window.’’

Mr Frank, who had been off duty and rushed to the scene so quickly that he had to borrow a gun from a colleague once he arrived, remembers ripping the handle off one of the doors, ‘‘just trying to get through’’.

As the children emerged, the officers tried to reassure them.

‘‘Everything is fine now,’’ they said, even as they stayed alert for a possible second gunman. ‘‘Everybody hold hands, close your eyes,’’ they told the children.

Some officers formed a human curtain around the bodies of Hochsprung and Sherlach, to shield the children from the sight as they filed past. Others blocked the doorways of the two classrooms.

As the scene settled that day, officers standing guard outside warned newly arriving colleagues not to go in if they had children.

Detective Joe Joudy, one of the senior members of the force, spotted Mr Chapman walking back to the building, covered in blood.

‘‘I was a mess, and he looks at me and says, ‘They’ve got to get you guys out of here’,’’ Mr Chapman said.

Newtown’s three-man detective squad, which also included Dan McAnaspie, would spend much of the next week working with the State Police to collect and inventory every bit of evidence from the crime scene.

‘‘Words can’t describe how horrible it was,’’ said Mr Joudy, who has been with the department for 27 years.

As he left the building that day, officer Tom Bean, who had also been off duty when he rushed to the scene, realised he had not told his wife where he was. He fumbled for his phone in the parking lot, and called her.
‘‘That’s when I broke down in tears, crying,’’ he said.

More than a month later, the officers continue to feel the pain of that day.

Some spoke reluctantly, not wanting to compare their torment with the agony of the families of the children and adult victims.

But they also worried about their ability to do their jobs, as they continue to suffer.

They said they omitted some details out of sensitivity to the victims, and to protect the investigation as it continued.

At least one person, Mr Bean, said he has already received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. He said he had been unable to return to work since the shootings, and had needed medication to sleep.

‘‘Our concern from the beginning has been the effects of PTSD,’’ said Eric Brown, a lawyer for the union that represents the Newtown police. ‘‘We estimate it is probably going to be 12-15 Newtown officers who are going to be dealing with that, for the remainder of their careers, we imagine, from what we’ve been told by professionals who deal with PTSD.’’

For Mr Frank, who spent days sequestered in the school, meticulously collecting evidence, the images keep recurring — and not just of the children.

The monster-truck backpack he found that was identical to his six-year-old’s. The Christmas ornaments that sat unfinished, drying on the windowsill.

‘‘It’s heartbreaking,’’ he said. ‘‘These kids will never take those ornaments home to their parents.’’

New York Times

This story First responders tell of Sandy Hook school horror first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.