Newtown, Connecticut: Twelve girls and eight boys. One had celebrated her seventh birthday just four days before her death. They included Charlotte and Jack, Noah and Grace.
Dressed in “cute kid stuff”, all 20 died when a heavily armed 20-year-old gunman forced his way into their school, Sandy Hook Elementary, and shot them and six women in an act of violence that has shattered their once-tranquil suburban town.
“They were first-graders,” said Connecticut chief medical examiner Dr H. Wayne Carver II, before releasing the names of all the victims of the school shootings on Saturday.
Asked to describe the attack, Carver, who oversaw the autopsies of all the victims and conducted many himself, called it “the worst I have seen”.
The shooter, identified by law enforcement officials as Adam Lanza, killed his mother Nancy on Friday, then drove to the school where he gunned down another 26 people before taking his own life in one of the deadliest mass shootings in US history.
He fired a rifle, shooting his victims multiple times. Parents identified their children through pictures, a process intended to minimize their shock, Carver said.
Members of the close-knit community went into public mourning on Saturday as the depth of the tragedy became clear.
“I don’t know how to get through something like this,” said Robbie Parker, a 30-year-old physician’s assistant whose 6-year-old daughter Emilie was among the dead.
“My wife and I don’t understand how to process this and how to get our lives going,” Parker told reporters. The oldest of his three kids, Emilie, “could just light up a room,” he said.
Police did not officially identify Lanza or his mother, but his father on Saturday issued a statement saying he too was struggling to understand his son’s actions.
“No words can truly express how heartbroken we are,” Peter Lanza said. “We are in a state of disbelief and trying to find whatever answers we can.”
While Americans have seen many mass shootings in the past decades, the victims have rarely been so young. On Saturday, some Democratic lawmakers called for sweeping new gun-control measures, a move certain to run up against stiff opposition from the nation’s powerful pro-gun lobby.
President Barack Obama plans to travel to the affluent suburb of 27,000 people about 80 miles (130km) from New York City on Sunday to meet with victims’ families and speak at a vigil at 7pm local time, the White House said.
In a nod to the sensitivities of the situation, the Fox TV network said late Saturday it would pull part of its regularly scheduled Sunday night block of animated shows - including a new episode of “American Dad” that featured in part a demon that punishes misbehaving children.
Missing from the nativity
On Saturday night, the pews at Newtown’s St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church were packed with parishioners attending a service that preceded an outdoor Nativity concert.
There was a live cow, a donkey and a camel. But at least one person was missing—6-year-old Olivia Engel.
“She was supposed to be an angel in the play,” said Reverend Robert Weiss. “Now she’s an angel up in heaven.”
Town fire officials set up 26 Christmas trees, decorated with stuffed animals, near the school as a memorial to the victims—many of whom were children who may have been hoping for such toys as their own holiday presents.
One of the victims, Josephine Gay, had celebrated her seventh birthday on Tuesday.
Rabbi Shaul Praver said he had spent time with Veronika Pozner, whose 6-year-old son Noah was among the victims.
“We encouraged her to focus on her other four children that need her and not to try to plan out the rest of her life,” Praver said.
The adult victims, some of whom died defending the students, ranged in age from 27 to 56. Carver, the medical examiner, said all the bodies had examined had been shot with a rifle. He said he and his staff had not yet examined the shooter or his mother.
School officials said late Saturday they would keep all district schools closed Monday so staff could prepare for a Tuesday reopening. The one exception was Sandy Hook itself.
“We are very close to finalizing a plan that will allow Sandy Hook students to resume classes,” school superintendent Janet Robinson said in a letter to the community. “We will communicate those details as soon as we can.”
Police earlier said they had assembled “some very good evidence” on the killer’s motives.
“Our investigators at the crime scene ... did produce some very good evidence in this investigation that our investigators will be able to use in, hopefully, painting the complete picture as to how—and more importantly why—this occurred,” Connecticut State Police Lieutenant Paul Vance told reporters.
Lanza had struggled to fit in his suburban community and his mother Nancy pulled him out of school for several years to home-school him, said Louise Tambascio, the owner of My Place Restaurant, where his mother was a long-time patron.
Nancy Lanza legally owned a Sig Sauer and a Glock, both handguns commonly used by police, and a military-style Bushmaster .223 M4 carbine, according to law enforcement officials, who also said they believed Adam Lanza used at least some of those weapons.
But the details of why Lanza acted will be of little comfort to parents who will have to bury children at what should be one of the most festive times of the year.
“I looked underneath my Christmas tree and there’s presents for my kids. How many others aren’t able to give their kids presents? These people are going to be affected. Every time Christmas comes,” said Benjamin Torres, 44, the owner of a roofing company in nearby Danbury who stopped in a local diner for breakfast Saturday.
The death toll exceeded that of one of the most notorious US school shootings, the 1999 rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, where two teenagers killed 13 students and staff before fatally shooting themselves.
At Virginia Tech, a Blacksburg, Virginia university where in 2007 a gunman killed 32 people in the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, an announcer extended sympathies to the residents of Newtown before a basketball game.
“This campus ... shares a deep sense of grief,” the announcer said. “We open our hearts to that community.” REUTERS