NEWTOWN, Connecticut (Reuters) - Residents of Newtown, Connecticut grudgingly began to accept on Saturday that a town many cherished for its serenity and anonymity is now synonymous with a school massacre that will remain in the national spotlight for the foreseeable future.
Locals, many of whom settled in the upscale New England community about 80 miles from New York City to escape the hustle and noise, some feeling safe enough to leave their doors unlocked, feared that Friday’s shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School claimed the lives of not only 20 children and six adults, but Newtown’s way of life as well.
In all, the gunman killed 28 people, including his mother and himself.
“This wonderful town that we all love for its peace, beauty, the great schools - all of that - has become Columbine,” said Julie Maxwell Shull, a Newtown middle school teacher, referring to the Colorado high school that in 1999 became the site of one of the nation’s most notorious mass school shootings.
“We came here because it was going to be a good, safe community for our kids,” said Catherine Hunyadi, as she and her husband wiped tears from their eyes.
The sense that a cherished lifestyle had been lost arose even as many of the town’s 27,000 residents came together to comfort and console the families and friends of the victims.
“I had friends growing up who said, ‘This is a great town and it should be famous.’ Now it’s famous for all the wrong reasons,” said Michael Klein of Wilton, Connecticut, who attended kindergarten and first grade at the Sandy Hook school and spoke at a memorial service at a Newtown synagogue on Saturday.
More than 100 grieving parishioners of Saint Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church filed past TV camera crews and satellite trucks in the church parking lot to pray and grieve together at an 8 a.m. mass on Saturday. The previous night, more than 1,200 people attended a service to remember those who died in the shooting.
“We had one little girl who was going to be an angel in our Christmas pageant at Christmas Eve mass. So it’s very close to home for me,” Monsignor Robert Weiss told MSNBC on Saturday morning, referring to one of the children killed at the school.
“The worst days are ahead. You know, the reality is just starting to settle in into the lives of these parents. I‘m sure this morning when they woke up and realized there was an empty bed in their house, it’s becoming more and more real to them,” Weiss added.
Sandy Hook Elementary School will not re-open with other Newtown schools next week, and students there will be routed to other schools in the district, public school superintendent Janet Robinson said on NBC’s ‘Today’ show on Saturday morning.
“People move to Newtown for the schools, and we feel safe. Now our innocence and our safety has been shattered,” Robinson said on the program.
The community was particularly loyal to Sandy Hook Elementary School, according to Lisa Berko. Her son completed primary school there and her daughter babysat for one of the victims of the shooting.
“The school was such a warm environment. Even after my kids had moved on, I used to go there once or twice a year” to take part in school fundraisers, Berko said.
Berko lives in a neighborhood not far from where the shooter and his mother lived, where parents feel it’s safe enough to let their children to ride bicycles unsupervised.
“You feel like you’re really safe in this area, not knowing you have a monster living down the street with guns planning to do something terrible,” Berko said.
“It’s just so scary to think how often I walked around this neighborhood, so close to that house, and that he was in there planning this terrible tragedy.”
Additonal reporting by Xavier Briand, Nichola Groom, Edith Honan, Chris Kaufman, Edward Kurdy, and Ernest Scheyder; Writing by Peter Rudegeair; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Paul Simao