Newtown: Gradually, the group of anxious parents shrank and was gently ushered to wait in a back room in the old brick firehouse around the corner from Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The sounds of cartoons playing for other people's children came from another room, but this room was hushed. A police officer entered the room and put the parents' worst fears into words: Their children were gone. The wails that followed could be heard from outside.
The wails sounded the end of a horrifying shooting that took the lives of 20 children and six adults in the school.
It was about 9:30 a.m., when the school locks its doors to the outside world, demanding identification from visitors. What happened next sounded different depending on where you were in the school when a normal school day exploded.
Pops. Bangs. Thundering, pounding booms that echoed, and kept coming and coming. Screams and the cries of children ebbed, until there was only the gunfire.
Countless safety drills learned over generations kicked in. Teachers sprang to their doors and turned the locks tight. Children and adults huddled in closets, crawled under desks and crouched in classroom corners.
Laura Feinstein, a reading support teacher, reached for her telephone. "I called the office and said, 'Barb, is everything OK?' and she said, 'There is a shooter in the building."'
"I heard gunshots going on and on and on," Feinstein said.
Even in the gym, the loudest room in any school on a given day, something sounded very wrong. "Really loud bangs," said Brendan Murray, 9, who was there with his fourth-grade class. "We thought that someone was knocking something over. And we heard yelling and we heard gunshots. We heard lots of gunshots."
"We heard someone say, 'Put your hands up!"' Brendan said. "I heard, 'Don't shoot!' We had to go into the closet in the gym."
In the library, Yvonne Cech, a librarian, locked herself, an assistant and 18 fourth-graders in a closet behind file cabinets while the sound of gunfire thundered outside.
Witnesses said later that they heard as many as 100 gunshots, but saw next to nothing in their hiding places. What was happening?
"Some people," a little girl said later, searching for words, "they got a stomachache."
The shooting finally stopped. Most teachers kept the children frozen in hiding. Some 15 minutes later, there was another sound, coming from the school intercom. It had been on the whole time. A voice said, "It's OK. It's safe now."
Brendan, in the gym, said, "Then someone came and told us to run down the hallway. There were police at every door. There were lots of people crying and screaming."
Run to the firehouse, the children were told. Shut your eyes and keep them shut and run. The Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire and Rescue station house is just down Dickerson Drive from the school.
Outside, a nightmare version of the school was taking shape. Police officers swarmed with dogs and roared overhead in helicopters. There were armoured cars and ambulances.
Inside, the librarians and children had been hiding in the closet for 45 minutes when a SWAT team arrived and escorted them out.
Word spread quickly through the small town. At nearby Danbury Hospital, doctors and nurses girded for an onslaught of wounded victims. "We immediately convened four trauma teams to be ready for casualties," a spokeswoman, Andrea Rynn, said. Nurses, surgeons, internal medicine and imaging specialists, as well as staff members from pathology and the hospital lab, rushed to assemble in the emergency room to receive an influx of patients from the shooting. An influx that never arrived. Only three victims came to the hospital. The rest were dead.
"I've been here for 11 years," Feinstein, the teacher, said. "I can't imagine who would do this to our poor little babies."
Another nurse who lives near the school hurried to the scene. "But a police officer came out and said they didn't need any nurses," she said. "So I knew it wasn't good."
Survivors gathered in the firehouse. Parents heard - on the radio, or on television, or via text messages or calls from an automated, emergency service phone tree - and came running. In the confusion, there were shrieks of joy as mothers and fathers were reunited with their children.
The parents whose children were unaccounted for were taken to the separate room, and a list of the missing was made. The pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church, Monsignor Robert Weiss, saw the list. "It was around, obviously, the number that passed away," he said.
The Rev. Matthew Crebbin ofNewtown Congregational Church was there, too.
"It's very agonizing for the families, but they are trying to be very meticulous," he said. "But it is very difficult for people."
A woman named Diane, a friend of a parent whose child was missing, said a state trooper had been assigned to each family. "I think there are 20 sets of parents over there," she said.
In another room of the firehouse, there were the oddly joyous sounds of cartoons. There were plates and pans of pizza and other donated food. No one touched it.
"There was a multifaith service with people sitting in folding chairs in a circle," said John Woodall, a psychiatrist who lives nearby and went to the firehouse. "And after that, people milled around and waited for news."
Outside, reunions continued. News, good and bad, was borne on the faces of the people around the school. Three women emerged with their arms around the one in the middle, protecting her. "We just want to get her home," one said.
A few minutes later, a mother and father practically ran past in relief, a little girl in a light blue jacket riding on her father's shoulders.
Brendan's father had been at home about a mile away with his wife when the phone rang, a call from the automated alert system saying there was a lockdown at the school.
"At first we weren't too nervous, because you hear of lockdowns happening all the time," said his father, Sean Murray. "Like if there was a liquor store down here being robbed, all the schools would go into lockdown."
They turned on the television and heard about the shooting, and how parents were being advised to stay away from the school. They ran to the car and went, and found Brendan waiting.
"It's sick," Murray said. "It's sick that something like this could happen at an elementary school."
Bonnie Fredericks, the owner of Sandy Hook Hair Company, said that many of the town's children had gathered recently for the lighting of the village Christmas tree, down the street from her shop.
Twenty were gone now. "We'll know all of them," she said.
Beside her shop, a sandwich board outside of a liquor store relayed a simple message, pasted over a sign advertising a beer special: "Say a prayer."
© 2012, The New York Times News Service