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December 21. 2012 10:00PM

Grief-wrenched town mourns school tragedy


Women embrace after observing a moment of silence nearby Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., Friday. (REUTERS/Adrees Latif)
NEWTOWN, Conn. - One week after a gunman forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing 20 children and six adults, this grief-wrenched town and the nation stopped to commemorate the precise moment of the attack that has shaken a country to its core.

To the sound of tolling bells, 26 mournful peals, officials gathered Friday in the cold and wet to remember the tragedy. Outside Town Hall, Newtown residents and visitors huddled next to local and state officials and police as church bells began sounding.

After the echoes rang across Main Street, silence engulfed the porch of Town Hall. All that could be heard was the pelting rain, a weeping woman and a few cars gliding slowly past.

The inclement weather drenched mountains of teddy bears, flowers and candles across the city. Joe Saleem struggled with a friend to protect the ad hoc memorials with plastic tarps.

"I've been through divorce. I've had a great friend commit suicide. But honestly, I've never felt this kind of pain in my life," Saleem said through tears.

Saleem lives in Charlotte, N.C., but said he used to live in Danbury, just a few miles away. He said he drove up when he heard about the shooting and planned on staying another couple of weeks.

"I just didn't know what to do but I knew I had to do something," he said as a gust of wind knocked over a large flower pot. "Every little town realized it could happen to them."

Those at the town hall included Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the town selectmen and first responders including Lt. J. Paul Vance, the face and voice of the criminal investigation into Adam Lanza, the gunman who killed himself after opening fire at the school. Lanza, 20, began his rampage by killing his mother in the home they shared and ended it with his suicide.

At the firehouse, another of the town's epicenters of grief, about 20 people gathered to observe the moment of silence.

Just before 9:30 a.m., eight Sandy Hook firefighters emerged from the firehouse in yellow gear, some holding their hats and gathered in front of the memorial. They stood silent for several moments in the rain. A few hugged bystanders. One wiped at his eyes, which were wet with rain and tears. Then they moved as a group, filing back inside.

Chip Carpenter, also in fire gear, stood watching the group. A volunteer with Sandy Hook Fire/Police, he responded on the day of the shooting, later learned he knew one of the teachers killed and has been out here every morning at 5 a.m., trying to preserve the memorial.

"We have lost so much," he said as one of the 26 Christmas trees behind him toppled. "We're here every morning just trying to keep it together. It's the beginning of closure."

Friday morning was particularly tough, he said.

"There's just so much we have to do. I was so despondent this morning, I just sat down and cried for the longest time," he said.

Still, he came back.

"When you think you just don't have any more and you're exhausted, you always seem to have more strength," he said, and left to console a weeping visitor by showing her the growing memorial display, which stretched about a block from the firehouse.

Nearby, Mia Ajro, 22, had just finished adding her contribution to the memorial: 27 white foam angels bearing the names of the dead.

Ajro, who works doing in-home care about 25 miles away in Morris, Conn., drove south to Sandy Hook on Friday to honor those killed. She and two friends had also hoped to join a memorial walk advertised on Facebook, although no one seemed to be walking, just standing in place, contemplating the memorial.

"I feel like everybody should pay their respects to the teachers and the kids," she said. "It's worldwide, affecting everybody because it was innocent children. I have family in Macedonia that were questioning me about it."

Funerals, which have been a staple of this town all week, continued Friday with seven services, memorials and visitations planned. The funerals will continue today.

In Washington, President Barack Obama observed a private moment of silence in the Oval Office, the White House said. Obama has directed Vice President Joe Biden to develop proposals for gun control in the coming weeks.

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