NEWTOWN, Conn. — The day began, like all days at Sandy Hook Elementary, with the morning ritual of taking attendance.
Yellow buses rolled into the parking lot just before 9 a.m., and a dozen teachers working “bus duty" greeted them at the school’s front curb. The teachers marked off students as they descended from their buses, patting their heads and counting them out loud. Then the group entered en masse through the glass doors at the front of the school and dispersed into classrooms, where the students were counted again.
Kindergartners snatched their colored name tags off a classroom wall and dropped them into a bucket so their teacher could see which ones were missing. First-graders seated in classrooms near the school’s front entrance listened for their names, raised their hands one-by-one and said, “Here."
Inside a single-story school building in the quiet hills of central Connecticut, everyone was accounted for. The glass doors were locked, and the video security system was enacted. A voice came over the loudspeaker to read the Pledge of Allegiance and then the school’s daily announcements. It was the seventh day of Hanukkah. The cafeteria would serve homemade pizza and broccoli for lunch. Christmas cookies were for sale after school in the lobby.
The date was Friday, Dec. 14, 2012.
No place is immune in the modern history of mass shootings in the United States, and this time it was Sandy Hook — where children stuff their backpacks into wooden cubbies and dress in mismatching outfits for Wacky Wednesdays, where Big Bird and Elmo run the haunted house in the gymnasium each Halloween, where a metal sign near the entrance reads, “Visitors Welcome."
The mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary unfolded in many ways, and in many voices.
There was the language of the state police investigation report: “On 12/14/12, at approximately 9:30 a.m., Newtown Police received a 9-1-1 call reporting a possible shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School located at 12 Dickenson Drive in Newtown."
There was the language of emergency radio traffic: “Units responding at Sandy Hook School. The front glass has been broken. We’re unsure why."
But, most of all on Friday, there was the simple and uncomplicated language of an elementary school, where, at 9:35 a.m., an unfamiliar voice could be heard shouting over the loudspeaker:
“Put your hands up!"
Then came popping sounds and screams. Children ducked under their desks. Adults locked doors, turned back to face their students and wondered how to explain the unexplainable.
Library specialist Bev Bjorklund heard the noises and hustled about 15 students toward a storage closet in the library, which was filled with computer servers. “Hold hands. Be quiet," she told the kids. They looked back at her, confused. One child wondered if pots and pans were clanging. Another thought he heard firecrackers. Another worried an animal was coming to the door.
They were children in a place built for children, and Bjorklund didn’t know how to answer them. She told them to close their eyes and to keep quiet. She helped move an old bookshelf in front of the door to act as a makeshift barricade. She wondered: How do you explain unimaginable horror to the most innocent?
One of her colleagues, a library clerk named Mary Anne Jacobs, did it for her. “It’s a drill," she told the students.
Drills they knew. Drills they understood. Their last one had been just a few weeks earlier, in mid-October, on a clear day when the children marched out of school in ordered fashion, placing their hands on each other’s shoulders to form a conga line, everyone’s eyes shut except for the designated “locomotive," an adult at the front of the line.
But now the popping sounds over the loudspeaker continued, and nobody in the library storage room thought it was safe to march outside. Jacobs decided the students needed a distraction. She found scraps of paper and some crayons on the floor of the closet, and Bjorklund helped pass them out. As muffled screams continued over the loudspeaker, 18 fourth graders began to color.
Near the front of the school, Victoria Soto was also trying to keep her students calm. The 27-year-old teacher hurried her first-graders into a bathroom near Classroom 10, just beyond the school’s main glass doors. Two students stood on the toilet. Others huddled on the floor. With no space left, Soto stepped out of the small room herself, a witness said. A 20-year-old man wearing black stepped into the classroom and shot her before quickly exiting the room.
“She got those kids to a good place and then told them they were safe," said Robert Licata, the parent of one of those first-graders who survived. “She knew them well enough to make them feel okay."
Others did the same. Music teacher Maryrose Kristopik barricaded her students in a classroom and blocked the door with xylophones. First-grade teacher Janet Vollmer read her kindergartners a story. Art teacher Virginia Gunn told her class to be quiet and used her cellphone to call police.
Caitlin Roig, a 29-year-old teacher, told ABC News that she turned the lights off in her classroom and tried to explain the situation to her first-graders. “There are bad guys out there now," she said. “We need to wait for the good guys." The students whispered in the room, speculating about their Christmas presents and wondering if they could defeat the bad guys with karate. One of them began to cry. “Show me your smile," Roig told him.
“I’m thinking, as a 6-year-old, 7-year-old, what are their thoughts?" she said. “So I said to them, ‘I need you to know that I love you all very much and that it is going to be okay.’ Because I thought it was the last thing they were ever going to hear."
Instead, they heard a knock on the door, and Roig walked closer to it. “Police!" people on the other side shouted. Roig didn’t believe them. The policemen slid their badges under the door, and Roig opened it. Some of her students walked into the hallway about 9:45 a.m., into the aftermath of a shooting.