staff report / The Bulletin

Hannah Galda is there, in the photograph taken Dec. 14 by a reporter for the Newtown, Conn., Bee, her blonde hair and pink shirt barely visible between two other girls. One has her right arm stretched, obscuring Hannah’s face, to reach the right shoulder of the girl just ahead.

“A little peanut,” her mother, Catherine Galda, 45, called her 7-year-old daughter. “She’s hard to see, but she’s there.”

The children — Amy Taylor’s second-grade class, Galda said — are walking in line through a parking lot, away from a building marked Sandy Hook Elementary. Connecticut State Police officers shepherd them. Behind them, inside the school, lay 20 of their first-grade schoolmates, their principal and five others, all shot to death by a young gunman who then took his own life.

Ahead of them, not far away, lay their destination, the Sandy Hook firehouse. Hannah’s mother was headed there, too, running on foot after abandoning her car in a doctor’s office parking lot.

“I was actually getting ready to go for a run,” dressing in her local gym, she said. She heard other moms talking about a lockdown at the school, saw the reports on television and “took that as my cue.”

She drove to within a quarter-mile of the school and found the way blocked by first responders, police cars and news vans.

She parked her car and ran the distance to the firehouse.

A friend texted a message that she’d seen Hannah, safe. Galda let loose a yell in relief.

An hour later, she found her daughter in the firehouse. She also found the children of friends and neighbors, to whom she emailed the message: “Sandy Hook’s seconds all safe.”

Meanwhile, the photograph was among the first broadcast nationwide as news of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook began to spread. In minutes, word had reached across the continent.

Standing in a “very long line” at the Bend post office that day, Jennifer Aylward, 47, chatted with other customers about holiday travel plans when a text message from her sister, Catherine Galda, appeared on her cellphone.

“It was short and to the point: ‘We are OK, too,’ ” Aylward said.

She took her turn at the postal counter, then walked out onto Oregon Avenue and, puzzled by the message, dialed her sister’s number.

“She just said it. We’re not ones to beat around the bush, my sisters and I,” Aylward said. “And we just collapsed in tears on the phone together in grief and gratefulness that Hannah was OK.”

Christmas in the Sandy Hook home of James and Catherine Galda takes on a special meaning this year. Catherine said she expects as many as 25 people, family members from around the country, “a big Italian festa.” Until Dec. 14, no such gathering had been planned, she said.

“We’re all just going to be together,” Galda said. “I only wish my sister Jen could be here. When you’re hit with something this humongous, people feel compelled to reconnect and share with one another.”

Holiday rituals went on in Newtown, Galda said. But a trip to the mall with her children to see Santa took place in a surreal atmosphere.

At a gathering of her daughter’s second-grade friends and their parents at the Galda home, everyone took turns playing with a new pair of kittens, “rotation kitten therapy.”

Galda said she set aside a career as a psychotherapist to raise a family with her husband, a plumber.

In the days after the shooting, parents’ emotions ran the gamut, she said. “It floods you with feeling that sometimes makes you completely numb.”

Kids, at that developmental stage, don’t quite grasp the meaning of death, Galda said. Children, first-graders, with whom Hannah shared the school bus are gone now, along with their principal, victims of the shooting.

“She understands. She can articulate that people died but not have an understanding of what that really means,” Galda said of her daughter.

“For the adults, it’s very different. Our community is a strong one, stronger than I’ve ever seen, and it’s pulled together tighter.”