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Newtown: A special town shattered by tragedy
CHRISTOPHER SULLIVAN,Associated Press

NEWTOWN, Conn. (AP) — At the crossroads that marks the center of this three-century-old New England postcard town stands a flagpole that's a kind of barometer. Every day, says Susan Osborne White, who has lived here all her life, "it tells me which way the wind is blowing" — and she calls the local newspaper whenever the flag is lowered to half-staff, to ask why.

No one is asking that now as the flag forlonly hangs over a heartbroken, uncomprehending town.

Shookflag

A flag in Newtown, Conn., flys at half-staff following Friday's shooting — the second worst in U.S. history —  that left 27 dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School (AP Photo)

Along streets where every window twinkles with holiday candles, police sirens wailed Friday. Over horse pastures in what was until fairly recently a rural town, helicopters' rotors thudded. In shops, televisions set to news stations blared.

Gesturing at a TV image of the shooting scene behind him at Newtown Hardware, Kyle Watts gave a pained cry, "I know that place," and shook his head. He's 18 and had gone to Sandy Hook Elementary School, and yet he and others working at the store felt they hardly knew where they were.

"A week or two ago," he said in disbelief, "we had the Christmas tree lighting. There was singing."

In normal times, this is a place that marks the year with a community tree lighting, an endless Labor Day parade running past the Main Street flagpole in which it's said everyone is either a participant or spectator or both, and an annual fund-raising lobster dinner at one of the five volunteer fire companies. It's a place where a benefactress, Mary Hawley, donated the classically designed town hall and the large, re-brick library, both set among towering oaks and maples. On a lake in town, part of one of the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn comedies was filmed.

It's become a bedroom community for commuters to Manhattan and Connecticut's more toney coastal towns, but it has retained the rural character that was set in 1708 when the colonial assembly of Connecticut permitted 36 men to lay out a new town. Some houses today date from not long after that, but there are typical modern subdivisions, too.

"It's still very much a small town in its heart. People really know each other," said Dan Cruson, the town's historian who has written a number of books about Newtown.

Sandy Hook is a section of town where the first grist mill was built along the rocky, rushing Pootatuck River. Other mills followed, and manufacturing grew in Sandy Hook. "It's always had its own identity," Cruson said, and in recent years it has been revitalized with smart restaurants and shops in Sandy Hook's center.

Every year, the local Lions Club raises thousands of dollars with a charity event along the river: Thousands of numbered yellow rubber ducks are sold for $5 each, then dumped in the swift current for a "race," the winner of which might get a big screen TV or a weekend in Manhattan 60 miles away.

In the crowd watching and cheering and at events like the fire department's lobster dinner, "everyone knows everyone. All of Sandy Hook is so tight," said Watts.

Maybe the school shooter was recognized when he entered and didn't seem a threat because he was known, he and others at the hardware store speculated. "You would never think ..." he said, leaving the thought incomplete.

The closeness has another dimension, of course.

"Everybody in town is going to help out. ... All of the churches are open tonight," said his co-worker Francis Oggeri, who's 22.

Scudder Smith agreed. "I was just down at the firehouse. Restaurants were sending in food," said Smith, publisher of the Newtown Bee, the weekly paper that has published since 1877.

He said Newtown is "getting bigger than the little country town that I grew up in. I've been here 77 years.... But it still has the feeling between neighbors that it always had."

The Bee had closed this week's edition — with front-page reports on the schools "performing at or above target," on vandalism at a cemetery, and other stories — when the first word of the shooting came in.

"We've been putting everything on our website. We were the first ones down there," Smith said. "We've had calls from Turkey, all over Europe."

A police scanner alerted the newsroom, and reporter Shannon Hicks said, "I listened long enough to figure out where this was unfolding and headed out." Her photo of terrified children being led across a school parking lot appeared around the world.

Asked about the town, Hicks said, "It's a good town. We have our issues" — squabbling over the local budget, police news and the like — "but this is not the kind of thing that's supposed to be one of them."

Standing by the cluttered antique wooden desk of the publisher, she looked down sadly. "I've already heard comparisons to Columbine," she said.

Folks here want to tell about the town that was here for 300 years before Friday's attack.

At the Bee, they mention how Halloween brings out so many children to Main Street houses — one was made into a "princess castle" this year, another for years had a three-story web and giant spider in front — that the paper has used clickers and counted more than 2,000 kids some years.

They mention the homely, simple things that might counter the horror.

"We have two garden clubs, and they get along, they don't hate each other," said Susan White, who checks the flagpole every day.

She laughed but then grew more serious, mentioning that her father was on the school board that authorized the building of the Sandy Hook school. "That was my school," she said.

Telling about an award her mother recently received for work on a 75-year-old scholarship fund in town, she said of the ceremony, "It was a Norman Rockwell moment."

And was this a Norman Rockwell town?

"We've got our ups and downs, but we're a very real town. 'Norman Rockwell' sounds like we're perfect ... but we're not very different from any other town," she said.

And now, she added, "People will stick together. They have to."

For about two hours late Friday and early Saturday, clergy members and emergency vehicles moved steadily to and from the school. The state medical examiner's office said bodies of the victims would be taken there eventually for autopsies.

At least three guns were found — a Glock and a Sig Sauer, both pistols, inside the school, and a .223-caliber rifle in the back of a car, authorities said. A law enforcement official speaking on condition of anonymity said some of the guns used in the attack may have belonged to Lanza's family. His mother had legally registered four weapons, his father two.

Authorities also recovered three other guns — a Henry repeating rifle, an Enfield rifle and a shotgun. It was not clear exactly where those weapons were found.

Adam Lanza and his mother lived in a well-to-do part of prosperous Newtown, about 60 miles northeast of New York City, where neighbors are doctors or hold white-collar positions at companies such as General Electric, Pepsi and IBM.

Lanza's parents filed for divorce in 2008, according to court records. His father, Peter Lanza, lives in Stamford, Conn., and works as a tax director for General Electric.

The gunman's aunt Marsha Lanza, of Crystal Lake, Ill., said her nephew was raised by kind, nurturing parents who would not have hesitated to seek mental help for him if he needed it.

"Nancy wasn't one to deny reality," Marsha Lanza said, adding her husband had seen Adam as recently as June and recalled nothing out of the ordinary.

Catherine Urso, of Newtown, said her college-age son knew the killer and remembered him for his alternative style. "He just said he was very thin, very remote and was one of the goths," she said.

Adam Lanza attended Newtown High School, and several news clippings from recent years mention his name among the honor roll students.

Joshua Milas, who graduated from Newtown High in 2009 and belonged to the school technology club with him, said Adam Lanza was generally a happy person but that he hadn't seen him in a few years.

"We would hang out, and he was a good kid. He was smart," Joshua Milas said. "He was probably one of the smartest kids I know. He was probably a genius."

An official who spoke on condition of anonymity said it was not clear that Adam Lanza had a job, and there was no indication of law enforcement interviews or search warrants at a place of business.

The mass shooting is one of the deadliest in U.S. history, and among school attacks is second in victims only to the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, which left 33 people dead, including the gunman. Reaction was swift and emotional in Newtown, a picturesque New England community of 27,000 people, as well as across the country and around the world.

"It has to stop, these senseless deaths," said Frank DeAngelis, principal of Colorado's Columbine High School, where a massacre in 1999 killed 15 people.

In Washington, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence organized a vigil at the White House, with some protesters chanting, "Today IS the day" to take steps to curb gun violence. In New York's Times Square, a few dozen people held tea lights in plastic cups, with one woman holding a sign that read: "Take a moment and candle to remember the victims of the Newtown shooting."

President Barack Obama's comments on the tragedy amounted to one of the most outwardly emotional moments of his presidency.

"The majority of those who died were children — beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old," Obama said at a White House news briefing. He paused for several seconds to keep his composure as he teared up and wiped an eye. Nearby, two aides cried and held hands.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard described the attack as a "senseless and incomprehensible act of evil."

"Like President Obama and his fellow Americans, our hearts too are broken," Gillard said in a statement.

In Japan, where guns are severely restricted and there are extremely few gun-related crimes, the attack led the news two days before nationwide parliamentary elections. In China, which has seen several knife rampages at schools in recent years, the attack quickly consumed public discussion.

At the Newtown vigil, Anthony Bloss, whose three daughters survived, said they are doing better than he. "I'm numb. I'm completely numb," he said.

Panicked parents looking for their children had raced earlier in the day to Sandy Hook, a kindergarten-through-fourth-grade school where police told youngsters to close their eyes as they were led from the building so that they wouldn't see the blood and broken glass.

Schoolchildren — some crying, many looking frightened — were escorted through a parking lot in a line, hands on one another's shoulders.

Robert Licata said his 6-year-old son was in class when the gunman burst in and shot the teacher. "That's when my son grabbed a bunch of his friends and ran out the door," he said. "He was very brave. He waited for his friends."

He said the shooter didn't utter a word.

Kaitlin Roig, a teacher at the school, said she implored her students to be quiet.

"I told them we had to be absolutely quiet. Because I was just so afraid if he did come in, then he would hear us and just start shooting the door. I said we have to be absolutely quiet. And I said there are bad guys out there now and we need to wait for the good guys to come get us out," Roig told ABC News.

"If they started crying, I would take their face and say it's going to be OK. Show me your smile," she said. "They said, we want to go home for Christmas. Yes, yeah. I just want to hug my mom, things like that, that were just heartbreaking."

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Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Pat Eaton-Robb and Matt Apuzzo and videographer Robert Ray in Newtown; Bridget Murphy in Boston; Samantha Henry in Newark, N.J.; Pete Yost in Washington; Michael Melia in Hartford; and the AP News Research Center in New York.