- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 16, 2012

NEWTOWN, Conn. — In the center of town, this tight-knit community’s Christmas tree has become a heartbreaking memorial to innocent children taken by a killer.

Candles and hundreds of stuffed animals, along with handwritten signs bearing messages of sympathy, now surround the tree. On Sunday night, thousands stopped to pay their respects to the victims of one of the worst tragedies in American history.

When local police Officer Luke Ramirez first heard of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday, his thoughts immediately turned to his 8-year-old son, a third-grade student at the school. As one of the first responders charged with confronting the grisly scene inside and with hunting for the cold-blooded shooter Adam Lanza, Officer Ramirez did his job. But fear for his son’s safety eventually got the better of him.

“I kind of broke down. Everything just went blank to me,” Officer Ramirez said as he held back tears, staring past the throngs of people toward the tree, where the makeshift memorial grew in size with each passing minute. “It was the worst feeling ever.”

Officer Ramirez was one of the lucky ones. His son escaped unharmed. Many other families endured a much different outcome, and they’re struggling to cope with the sadness and despair that has enveloped Newtown and brought an entire nation into mourning.

Residents look on during an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into the elementary school Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. President Barack Obama is schedule to speak during the vigil. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
Residents look on during an interfaith vigil for the victims of the ... more >

Hundreds of the grief-stricken streamed into the community high school Sunday night to hear President Obama and local religious leaders honor the 20 students and six adults killed in the school rampage and offer words of compassion. Hours before the vigil began, mourners lined up outside the building, many covered with white blankets provided by the American Red Cross to shield them from Sunday night’s stinging rain and frigid temperatures.

“I come to offer the love and prayers of a nation. I am very mindful that mere words cannot match the depth of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts,” Mr. Obama said. “We have wept with you. … Whatever portion of sadness that we can share with you to ease this heavy load, we will gladly bear it.”

The president not only spoke words of comfort, but offered a heartfelt, emotional plea to the nation and its leaders to take real, lasting steps to prevent another tragedy on the scale seen in Newtown, in Aurora, Colo., in Oak Creek, Wis., and in other towns where gunmen have brought death and destruction to peaceful communities.

“Can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations? Can we honestly say that we are doing enough to keep our children — all of them — safe from harm?” Mr. Obama said, asking if the nation is doing enough to give all children a chance at a good life with “happiness and with purpose.”

“If we are honest with ourselves, the answer is no,” he said. “We are not doing enough, and we will have to change.”

The Sunday night ceremony capped off another gut-wrenching day in Newtown — a day in which thousands sought refuge in houses of worship, flocking to local churches to comfort one another and hear messages of encouragement, hope and love from local priests, pastors and rabbis.

Even there, some were denied the solace they sought.

St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church had to be evacuated during Sunday morning Mass, with officials reporting that someone phoned in a “threat of violence.” It was yet another blow to the people of Newtown, but after Friday’s shooting, the parishioners at St. Rose took it in stride.

“I don’t think any of us could be surprised about anything after what happened” at Sandy Hook, said Brian Wallace, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn. He added that the people inside St. Rose evacuated the building without panic and comforted one another outside the church.

Despite the threat — which is still under investigation — St. Rose and other Newtown churches are playing an important role in the healing process, though ministers also found themselves at a loss to explain Friday’s massacre.

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