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Small Town Tries To Cope With Unimaginable Tragedy

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Mourners gather for a vigil service for victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, at the St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Newtown, Conn. Friday, Dec. 14, 2012.
Mourners gather for a vigil service for victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, at the St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Newtown, Conn. Friday, Dec. 14, 2012.

Newtown, Conn., is a white-collar community an hour and a half northeast of New York City. It's the kind of place where crime is rare and the biggest thing that happens each year is the Labor Day parade.

Now the peace and quiet has been shattered, and residents are trying to make sense of what's happened.

Hours after the shootings that left so many people dead, St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church opened its doors for a prayer vigil. People filed through the streets and past houses decorated with Christmas lights.

Among the mourners was 8-year-old James Benvenuti, who attends Sandy Hook Elementary School. On Friday night, as his mother stood next to him, he talked about what had happened. He and his classmates had to cower inside a classroom while the shootings took place.

"I went to my classroom and my teacher said, 'Get in the corner, let's not talk about it,' " James said. "She called the cops like five times, and the other teacher called two times and we were being quiet for, like, an hour and then the cops came."

All over Newtown a sense of unreality was hanging in the air. Amy Headford, 35, attended Sandy Hook as a child and her son goes to a nursery school right next to the school. When the shootings occurred, she ran to get him. In a close-knit town like Newtown, she says what happened could be described only as heartbreaking.

"It's so close I'm just lost for words right now," Headford said. "To imagine ... if it were a year later, he would be in school."

By Friday afternoon most people were still trying to absorb what had happened. Newtown looks like a New England village, but it's really a small suburb on the northern fringes of affluent Fairfield County. It's not very large and people tend to be one or two degrees of separation from each other.

Resident Bob Haskins knew some people who worked at Sandy Hook, and he knew a lot of parents whose kids went there. Like a lot of residents, he was waiting to hear the grim news about who had died.

"They've been very circumspect about who the victims were, so at the end of the day, being such a close-knit community, our expectations are that we'll know most of the victims," he said.

Haskins said Newtown is a great place to live and raise your kids, and he didn't think the shootings would change that. They were an isolated incident that could have happened anywhere, but there is no question that the killings will leave the town scarred.

The United Methodist Church opened its doors on Friday as a kind of sanctuary so people who wanted could come to pray. Susan Kalbaugh, who was at the church with her daughter, used to work at Sandy Hook and said she knew everyone there.

"I worked there for eight years ... the best school ever," Kalbaugh said. "It's just sad that something like this had to happen."

Kalbaugh said Newtown has always been a homey, serene place, but now it has joined the ranks of those towns where terrible crimes of violence have inexplicably erupted. A lot of its residents are still trying to figure out how it happened.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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