Newtown's pain

Away from the TV lights and political drama, a shattered community struggles to carry on

Danny Ghitis/Novus Select

Debora Accomando was working at 42nd and 3rd in midtown New York on Sept. 11, 2001, when the twin towers came down. The then-27-year-old recruiter managed to reach her brother, who was also in New York, and after talking to their parents they walked north to 125th Street. There were crowds of people doing the same, many covered in ash and walking in zombie-like silence away from the horror of downtown. “It was like something out of the Thriller video,” Debora says today. When fighter jets flew over, she heard their echoing roar and was sure they were being attacked again.

She and her husband, Robert, a real estate lawyer, decided within days that they would leave their rented top floor of a house in the New York suburb of Bronxville. “We didn’t want the post-9/11 reality. We were just like, ‘Let’s go somewhere where we don’t get anthrax in the subway, where you don’t have to worry about sarin gas or the water supply.’ That was the conversation then, that the terrorists were going to come at us through the subway or the ports. We wanted to go where we could live a quiet life of anonymity and peace.”

They quit their jobs and in January 2002 moved into their contemporary colonial house at the top of a long, winding driveway in Newtown, Conn., about a 90-minute drive from New York City. There they brought three boys into the world, each three years apart. Soon enough their yearly pig roasts were a hit; a recent one included some 150 people and a purpose-built vodka-shot ice luge. Last year, two of their boys, now 6 and 9, joined Newtown’s wrestling club; the youngest, now three, joined this year.

The move to Newtown, says Robert, 46, was prompted by “a combination of a terrible event, the need for safety and security, and the desire to get away from the craziness of the world. My thinking was just that: to get away from the craziness of the world and make babies. And until that weekend, that’s exactly what Newtown was.”

That weekend, as the world now knows, began Friday, Dec. 14, when a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 26 people, including 20 children, before turning his gun on himself. Until then, Newtown was perhaps better known for hardly being known at all—a slice of cheery, tree-lined New England oblivion tucked in close to the New York State border.

Overnight, the town became clogged with strangers coming to stage its grief, and with television trucks to broadcast the town’s misery across the country and the world. The size and ferocity of the rampage—several victims couldn’t have an open-casket funeral because of what Adam Lanza’s bullets did to their young bodies—has brought fresh urgency to the entrenched debate over gun control in the U.S.

It is a mark of the power and influence of the gun lobby that America has remained stubbornly status quo when it comes to allowing its citizens to arm themselves, despite the steady stream of bodies resulting from various shootings over the years. Yet the scale of this rampage, and the young age of Lanza’s victims, has seemingly jolted the nation awake. It’s a horrifying number: roughly seven per cent of Newtown’s Grade 1 students were wiped out within a matter of minutes, many of them shot multiple times as their classmates watched. In a country all too prone to frequent mass killings by people with legal (and usually legally obtained) firearms, Newtown isn’t just another cautionary tale; it is, perhaps, the beginning of the end of the gun lobby’s political sway.

Away from the media circus of Sandy Hook and the political drama playing out around them, Newtown’s citizens struggle to cope even as the shell shock had barely lifted. Some kids are lashing out at their parents; some have refused to go to school outright; others still have wondered out loud how they can survive if they get shot in the chest next time they leave the house. In the kitchens and living rooms of Newtown, a place that will never again be the same, life goes painfully on.

Newtown is what you might call rustic suburbia. Its narrow streets—almost too narrow for its many minivans—wind around stone hedges and wood-panelled subdivisions, and have names like Patriot Ridge, Schoolhouse Hill Road and Sealand Drive. The town is best known for its flagpole, which sits smack in the middle of the town’s busiest intersection, Main Street and Church Hill Road. It has endured despite being an obvious traffic hazard, if only because Newtowners are so proud of it. The attitude of locals is this: it’s simple. It’s a flagpole. Don’t hit it.

Robert and Debora live about a 10-minute drive away, in the Sandy Hook section of the town. Friday, Dec. 14, began as most days here. They got their three boys up, fed them and shovelled the two oldest, nine-year-old Robbie and six-year-old Danny, out the door to school. Their youngest, three-year-old Steven, puttered around the house while Robert and Debora, who operate their own recruiting agency from home, worked at their computers.

“I was doing something Christmas-related,” Debora says, “and I get this email from the school district’s emergency messaging system. It said there was a shooting at one of the schools. I thought it was a joke. Then I saw the email heading, and saw it was actually from the school district.”

The two turned to social media, where they quickly figured out that the incident was at Sandy Hook, not Hawley Elementary School, where their boys went. That they weren’t at Sandy Hook was the result of a twitch one year in the school-zone dividing line between Sandy Hook and Hawley; the family actually lives closer to Sandy Hook.

Hawley was under lockdown, they found out. Their kids were safe. On their respective Facebook pages, Robert and Debora read that the news wasn’t as bad as it might have been.

“The reports we were getting were saying that only three people had to be taken to the hospital, and we heard that the shooter was already dead,” says Debora, a petite 40-year-old with dark hair. “And then it went from three injured and the shooter dead to the fact that hundreds of rounds were used. Three injured and 100 rounds didn’t equal up.”

“Multiple injuries is the latest. Trying to reach friends whose kids are there now. Want to puke,” Robert wrote on his Facebook page at 10:16 a.m. “Possibly two shooters in the school,” he wrote 17 minutes later.

At 10:36, Robert wrote, “One shooter is dead.” He didn’t yet know that the violence was over, or that 26 people lay dead. Five minutes later: “Shooter went to main office and shot several times. One shooter is still at large.”

Right around this point, Robert wrote a quick, angry post about the anti-gun lobby, and how he wished he had a firearm in his house to ward off the second shooter, apparently loose in his neighbourhood. But he quickly erased the post and went to get his air rifle. He loaded it and propped it near the door.

On CNN, Robert watched as a SWAT team approached a shed on the Sandy Hook Elementary grounds, guns drawn. He recognized it immediately. Robert was treasurer of the Newtown wrestling team, and father of three budding wrestlers; he’d been in the steel storage locker next to that shed not 48 hours before, putting away the team’s gear. “I spend 2½ hours, three nights a week in that school. The only place I spend more time than Sandy Hook is my own home.”

At the same time, Robert was messaging with Curtis Urbina, a coach with the team. “Someone please find Jack Pinto. He is with Ben Wheeler,” Urbina wrote at 1:32 p.m. At 3:13, Robert wrote to Urbina, asking the coach to call him. The two didn’t talk, however, and at 3:19 Robert wrote, “I confirmed some bad news.” Both Jack Pinto, 6, and Ben Wheeler, also 6, were dead.

The news flooded in to them as it did all of Newtown. They picked their kids up, got them home. They watched the news, got the final tally of the dead, then cried and cried and cried. The Accomandos are Italian-American; saying “I love you” is common practice at the best of times. In the wake of the shootings, it became something of a mantra chanted between Robert and Debora and their kids. “I love you, go put on your shoes.” “I love you, go to bed.” “I love you, stop yelling.” “I love you, eat.”

They woke up Saturday morning in a fog. They figured the victims’ families would need to eat. Sixteen families came to the Accomando house. The adults crowded into their kitchen, making spaghetti sauce on the gas range, chopping vegetables on the centre island in their kitchen and packing the food into boxes, which they carried out to their cars through the basement garage. The Hook, a restaurant in town, donated cooked food and transportation to complement the families’ efforts.

“We did it to stop crying, to get rid of that sense of deep helplessness about how many people we knew. As Italian-Americans, we decided that we should start cooking,” Robert says. “We were going to the store, and we were like, ‘Why are we just doing this for the Pintos? Let’s find out who got killed, and do it for everyone.’ ”

In the following days, parents stopping by the Accomandos shared some of the stories going around, like the Sandy Hook teacher who managed to escape Lanza’s bullets by crawling out a meeting room window, sure Lanza would shoot her as she ran for safety. There was the school’s janitorial staff, who managed to stymie Lanza’s progress by going up and down the halls to make sure the doors were locked as the shooter roamed the school.

Then there was the father who was walking into Sandy Hook Elementary to decorate gingerbread houses with his daughter and members of her Brownie troop, only to be met with a panicked tide of bloodied children running out of the building. His daughter survived; most of her Brownie troop died.

There were also tales of incredible bravery. A kid named J.J. was in Victoria Soto’s first-grade class when Lanza burst in. Lanza shot Soto, who was shielding her students, but his gun either jammed or he had to reload. J.J., an adept player of the Call of Duty video game—the very same game with which Lanza was obsessed—knew that the time to move was during a lull in firing. He led five other kids out of the school to the nearby driveway of Gene Rosen. J.J. told Rosen that they couldn’t go back to class, because their teacher was dead.

The group delivered meals to eight affected families that Saturday. One fellow dropped off sauce, uncooked pasta and bread at the residence of Anne Marie Murphy, one of the teachers slain the day before. He was so nervous that he couldn’t bring himself to knock on the door. He left the food on the doorstep and walked quickly away.

Debora later got a phone call from Alice, Anne Marie’s sister, who teaches Debora’s youngest boy at preschool. She told Debora how grateful she and her family were for the food. They’d practically forgotten to eat, and were so hungry that they didn’t bother cooking the pasta. They just ripped open the sauce container and dunked the bread straight into it.

“Sunday came, and we said, ‘What are we going to do, cook again?’ ” Robert says. “We couldn’t do it. We only reached eight families. We thought, ‘What else could we do? What is going to happen to the families when the cameras leave and the attention fades?’ We wanted to do something other than watch CNN and cry.”

And so began the My Sandy Hook Family Fund. “We are the parents of the children who survived,” the group’s mission statement reads. “We are the classmates, friends and the little league coaches. Sandy Hook is where we live—it is our proud community. We ask the world to join us not only in our grief but also in our burning need to take some of the burdens off these families in their time of incredible pain. To bear their cross in some small way.”

The donations, the group decided, would be put toward paying for funerals and funeral clothes, food, mortgage payments and whatever other expenses the 26 families of victims incurred as they grieved. At the funeral for Jack Pinto, who was on the same wrestling team as the Accomando boys, Robert had heard that the family of another young victim had to empty their bank account to pay for the funeral.

The group set a fundraising goal of $2.6 million—$100,000 for each family. One hundred per cent of the proceeds would go to the victims’ families. By Monday morning they had $27,000, and more than $100,000 by that evening.

Monday brought different and disturbing challenges to the community. Someone had called in bomb threats to Hawley, Robbie and Danny’s school. It brought a new sense of paranoia to the Accomandos—although, given what had happened, it was hardly paranoia at all. “We were told that there were going to be cops in the schools, but then we thought, ‘Well, what happens if crazy people start shooting at the school buses?’ ” Robert says. “So we said we’d drive them to school.” In the end they just stayed home, even though Hawley opened its doors that day.

On Wednesday night, five days after the shooting, Robert and Debora brought their kids to the first wrestling meet since the tragedy. An uninformed stranger might be charmed by the sheer normalcy of the thing. Held at a community sports centre in nearby Danbury, it had all the trappings of any other meet: kids lined up, first for stretches, then for shot and sprawl drills. The three-year-olds followed exactly what the older kids did, barrelling through the drills with tiger-cub intensity. Parents milled about, keeping an eye on their kids when they weren’t talking to each other. Every 30 seconds or so, coach Christopher Bray blew his whistle to start or stop a drill.

“Those kids in that room tonight were the last kids to wrestle with Jack Pinto,” Robert would say later. On Thursday, Dec. 13, Pinto had a league match against the Ridgefield wrestling club. “Jack went home on Thursday night, went to school the next day and was killed with his class.”

But the tragedy didn’t keep kids from being kids. At the wrestling meet, they bounced off the rubberized mats, barely contained by coach Bray’s whistle. They’d zoom off to the equipment room to collect their ear guards when it was time to spar. They’d demand cookies after the practice, and there was a good chance they’d fall asleep during the car ride home. Liz Luzietti’s son Shane, 10, was a friend of Jack’s, and at practice he was as aggressive as ever.

“Shane’s like that,” says Luzietti. “He’s intense on the mat, but he’s really a mush, always touching my face. Now he doesn’t feel safe with all these strangers. He’s suddenly petrified that we’re going to be late for everything. And he’s lashing out, telling me he hates me. I’m just trying to ride it out,” she says, her huge, friendly eyes rimmed with tears.

In the days following the shooting, Robert and Debora kept a close watch on their three boys for signs of . . . well, anything, actually. There wasn’t much, other than an excitement (and then annoyance) at all the strangers traipsing through the house. It was almost like nothing had happened. Then, on Sunday night, nine-year-old Robbie heard his school was going to be closed the next day, and he was sure he knew why. “He said Hawley was closed because the school was trying to fake out the people who were going to bomb it,” Debora says.

On that same night, their middle kid, Danny, was getting ready for bed with his dad. “If I get shot, do I have to die? Is it automatic? Do I disappear, like with a phaser in a video game?”

“No, it depends on where you get shot,” Robert answered.

Danny pointed to his belly. “What if I get shot here?”

“Why are you asking me this? You don’t have to worry about it,” Robert said.

“I know, just tell me what I need to do,” Danny answered.

“Well, first you need to put pressure where the bleeding is. But you really don’t have to worry about it.”

“I want to know, just in case,” Danny said. He then jumped into his father’s arms and they went to Danny’s bedroom.

“It was like he was just working out in his head, logically, what he had to do if that happened,” Robert would say later. “It wasn’t emotional at all, just matter-of-fact.”

Living while so many of those close to them have died has taken its toll on parents as well. “You almost feel bad because your kid survived, and theirs didn’t,” says Chris Manfredi, the president of the wrestling club, whose own son, Luca, wrestled with Jack. “Basically, I feel like an asshole for feeling bad. They have the right to feel bad, not me.”

On Saturday, Dec. 22, My Sandy Hook Family Fund cracked $500,000—about a fifth of the way to its $2.6-million goal. “There is also a stack of cheques over a foot high at the bank,” Robert wrote in an email.

He can’t wait for it to be over. “I don’t want people thinking I have delusions of grandeur. I don’t want to be alienated from the community I live in,” he says, sighing. “When this is all over I just want to disappear.”

On Sunday, nine days after the shooting, Debora and some friends went to the Wheelers to clean their house. The warehouse in town was filling up with donations of clothes, food and toys from around the world, just as the media trucks began leaving their week-long perch on the banks of the Pootatuck River at the centre of Sandy Hook. Traffic through town became a little more bearable as the flow of mourners abated. In Newtown, barely a week after the calamity, life was settling into whatever normal will be from now on.

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