NEWTOWN, Conn. (AP) — Mourners overlapped at back-to-back services as funerals began in earnest in a Connecticut town that lost 20 of its children and seven adults to a gunman, with emotions and tempers in tatters amid a global crush of media attention to a community once known mostly for its bucolic atmosphere and sterling school system.
At St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Newtown, a service for first-grader James Mattioli had not concluded when mourners began arriving for the funeral of little Jessica Rekos, the first of eight to be held in the coming days at the church. Several more sets of funerals and visitation hours were set throughout town Wednesday.
Students went back to classes the day before, except for those at Sandy Hook Elementary, where a lone gunman armed with a military-style assault rifle slaughtered the children, six adults and himself by the time Friday’s massacre ended. He also killed his mother at her home.
Pupils at Sandy Hook, which serves kindergarten through fourth grade, will resume classes in a formerly shuttered school in a neighboring community after the winter break, the Connecticut Post reported.
“It’s definitely better than just sitting at home watching the news,” sophomore Tate Schwab said outside Newtown High School. “It really hasn’t sunk in yet. It feels to me like it hasn’t happened.”
The tragedy continued to reverberate around America as citizens and lawmakers debated whether Newtown might be a turning point in the often polarizing national discussion of gun-control.
Private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management announced Tuesday it plans to sell its stake in Freedom Group, maker of the Bushmaster rifle, following the school shootings. In Pittsburgh, Dick’s Sporting Goods said it is suspending sales of modern rifles nationwide because of the shooting. The company also said it’s removing all guns from display at its store closest to Newtown.
A former co-chairman of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., and 10-term House Republican Jack Kingston, a Georgia lawmaker elected with strong National Rifle Association backing, were the latest to join the call to consider gun control as part of a comprehensive, anti-violence effort next year.
“Put guns on the table. Also put video games on the table. Put mental health on the table,” Kingston said.
But he added that nothing should be done immediately, saying, “There is a time for mourning and a time to sort it out. I look forward to sorting it out and getting past the grief stage.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama was “actively supportive” of a plan by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to introduce legislation to reinstate an assault weapons ban. While Obama has long supported a ban, he did little to get it passed during his first term.
The National Rifle Association, silent since the shootings, said in a statement that it was “prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.” It gave no indication what that might entail.
Around Newtown, people had plenty of opinions about the gun debate but were focused on more immediate tasks: shaking off the fear, mourning loved ones and burying the dead.
At a wake Tuesday for 27-year-old first-grade teacher Victoria Soto, hundreds of mourners, many wearing ribbons in the school colors of green and white, stood in a line that wrapped around a funeral home in nearby Stratford. Soto has been hailed as a hero for dying while trying to shield her students, some of whom managed to escape.
“Big smile, great eyes, just a wonderful person,” Lauren Ostrofsky said. “If anyone could be an example of what a person should be today, it’s her.”
At St. Rose, a motorcade led by police motorcycles arrived for the funeral of James Mattioli, who loved recess and math and was described by his family as a “numbers guy” who couldn’t wait until he was old enough to order a foot-long Subway sandwich.
Traffic in front of the church slowed to a crawl as police directed vehicles into the parking lot. A school bus carrying elementary students got stuck in traffic, and the children, pressing their faces into the windows, sadly watched as the mourners assembled.
Immediately afterward was the funeral for Jessica Rekos, who loved horses and was counting the years until she turned 10, when her family had promised her a horse of her own. For Christmas, she had asked Santa for new cowgirl boots and hat.
Tensions in the shattered community ran high as the grief of parents and townspeople collided with media reporting on the shootings and the funerals. Police walked children to parents waiting in cars to protect them from the cameras. Many parents yelled at reporters to leave their children and the town alone.
At Newtown High, students in sweat shirts and jackets, many wearing headphones, had mixed reactions. Some waved at or snapped photos of the assembled media horde, while others appeared visibly shaken.
Students said they didn’t get much work done and spent much of the day talking about the terrible events of Friday, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza, clad all in black, broke into Sandy Hook Elementary and opened fire on students and staff. Some students dismissed any concerns about safety.
“This is where I feel the most at home,” P.J. Hickey said. “I feel safer here than anywhere else in the world.”
Still, some parents were apprehensive.
Priscilla and Randy Bock, arriving with their 15-year-old special-needs son, James, expressed misgivings. “I was not sure we wanted him going,” Priscilla Bock said. “I’m a mom. I’m anxious.”
“Is there ever a right day? I mean, you just do it, you know, just get them back to school,” said Peter Muckell as he took 8-year-old daughter Shannon, a third-grader, to Hawley Elementary.
At one Newtown school, students found some comfort from Ronan, an Australian shepherd therapy dog from Good Dog Foundation in New York. Owner Lucian Lipinsky took the dog to a fifth-grade science and math class where students were having difficulty coping with the tragedy. Most started smiling immediately.
Lipinsky told the students they could whisper their secrets into Ronan’s ear.
“It’s pretty amazing how a lot of kids will just go whisper in his ear and tell them their secret, and, of course, he doesn’t tell anyone,” Lipinsky said. “He’s a very good dog.”
Authorities say the horrific events of Friday began when Lanza shot his mother, Nancy, at their home, and then took her car and some of her guns to the nearby school, where he broke in and opened fire, killing 20 children and six adults before shooting himself.
A Connecticut official said the mother, a gun enthusiast who practiced at shooting ranges, was found dead in her pajamas in bed, shot four times in the head with a .22-caliber rifle.
Investigators have found no letters or diaries that could explain the attack, even as more fragments of Lanza’s life emerged.
As a teenager, Lanza was so painfully shy that he would not speak or look at anyone when he came in for a haircut about every six weeks, always accompanied by his mother, said stylists in the Newtown hair salon Lanza frequented.
Cutting Adam Lanza’s hair “was a very long half an hour. It was a very uncomfortable situation,” stylist Diane Harty said, adding that she never heard his voice.
Another stylist, Jessica Phillips, said Nancy Lanza would give her son directions about what to do and where to go. He would move only “when his mother told him to,” said a third stylist, Bob Skuba.
Even as questions lingered about the gunman and his motive, appreciation for those who helped students escape him persisted — as well as devotion to preventing it from happening again.
Andrei Nikitchyuk’s young son, a boy nicknamed Bear, was on his way to the principal’s office with a classmate Friday morning. The children were classroom helpers tasked with the most mundane of school day chores: delivering a teacher’s attendance sheets. Before they made it, the children heard a series of loud bangs that sounded like someone was slamming a door. Bear later told his dad he “saw bullets flying past.”
Nikitchyuk, who was in Washington on Tuesday to support the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence’s push for tougher gun regulations, said teacher Abby Clements pulled his son and the boy’s classmate into a nearby classroom as the shooting started.
“He was saved by a wonderful teacher,” Nikitchyuk said, his voice cracking slightly. “She pulled them into a classroom and barricaded that door.”
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Allen G. Breed, Helen O’Neill, John Christoffersen and Pat Eaton-Robb in Newtown; Katie Zezima in Stratford; Larry Margasak in Washington; and AP Business Writer Joshua Freed in Minneapolis.