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.
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.
From behind his pulpit on Sunday morning, the Rev. Parker Reardon, pastor of the small Newtown Bible Church on the outskirts of town, paused for a moment during his sermon, looking out toward his congregation as members embraced one another and fought off the urge to weep.
"I haven't gotten a lot of sleep the past few nights. I can't even remember if we've already prayed. If we have, then we'll pray again," he said, again leading the churchgoers in prayer only minutes after already doing so at the beginning of his remarks.
Like others in this affluent community, Mr. Reardon flatly admitted, "I don't know what to say," echoing the sentiments of others still unable to fully explain Friday's events.
Newtown's pastors understood that, on this day, no amount of preparation or study would prepare them for the flood of grief and sadness that would pour through their doors. Those feelings are only beginning to bubble to the surface, 48 hours after the gunman took the lives of 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook.
"I don't think today is going to be a regular service," said the Rev. Jim Orefice, associate pastor at Newtown's Connections Church, as churchgoers began filtering in for 10 a.m. service.
Still shaken from the massacre, Newtown mostly was quiet on Sunday morning, with the exception of those making their way to services.
At St. Rose, parishioners stopped at small makeshift memorials just outside the church's entrance. Much like downtown's Christmas tree tribute, there were not only candles, but also stuffed animals and other reminders of the childhood innocence represented by many of the victims at Sandy Hook, less than two miles from St. Rose.
Handwritten signs and banners with messages of sympathy increasingly appeared in Newtown over the weekend. As drivers exited Interstate 84 and headed toward the town's historic district, they were greeted by a sign with the words "Pray for Newtown."
In the historic district, another hand-drawn message read: "We are a family Newtown."
Homes displayed similar messages on their front porches, from windows and on mailboxes. Attendees of Sunday night's vigil passed another chilling memorial on the way to Newtown High School, with small angels representing each of the victims erected on the side of the road.
The families of the victims have over the past 24 hours begun to speak out and pay tribute to their loved ones. Friday's tragedy, already impossible to put into words, has become even more heart-wrenching as photographs of those young victims surface. One such child is Daniel Barden, described by family members as a "constant source of joy and laughter."
"Everyone who has ever met Daniel remembers and loves him. Words really cannot express what a special boy Daniel was. Such a light. Always smiling, unfailingly polite, incredibly affectionate, fair and so thoughtful towards others, imaginative in play, both intelligent and articulate in conversation," reads a statement released by Daniel's family.
"He embodied everything that is wholesome and innocent in the world. Our hearts break over losing him and for the many other families suffering loss. We thank our friends, family and the community for their prayers and support that we have received," they said.
Robbie Parker, the father of 6-year-old victim Emilie Parker, spoke to reporters on Saturday afternoon and said that "this world is a better place" because his daughter had been in it.
In a remarkable moment of compassion, Mr. Parker also offered words of sympathy to the family of the shooter.
"I can't imagine how hard this experience must be for you, and I want you to know that our family and our love and our support goes out to you as well," he said.
As the families dealt with their losses, a few folks still went about their Sunday morning routine, stopping for coffee at a local store and otherwise seeking an escape from the thought of Friday's heinous acts and also from the hordes of media now camped out all over town.
On Church Hill Road, one of Newtown's main junctions and the route from St. Rose to Sandy Hook, retired police Officer Richard Oladovich came to direct traffic on Sunday morning, as he has for years.
The 69-year-old, born and raised in the area, struggled to find the words to describe his own feelings, and those of the families he has shared a community with for decades. He came to work as scheduled, using the job as a kind of escape.
"Everything is quiet here," he said, taking a break from leading cars into the St. Rose parking. His cold breath was visible as he spoke, and Sunday morning's stinging rain pelted his uniform. He recalled his years with the nearby Bethel Police Department, another small town eight miles from Newtown.
He expressed sympathy for the victims and their families, and for his comrades in the law enforcement and first-responder community who were greeted at Sandy Hook by a grisly scene difficult to put into words.
"If I was still on duty, I wouldn't believe that scene. It's so out of the realm [of normalcy] for this area," he said.
The people of Newtown have embarked on the long, difficult road to recovery. Friday's tragedy was the last thing they expected, and even now, shock remains the dominant emotion.
"It's not something the people here were mentally prepared for," said Ricky Andrews, a 24-year-old accountant and lifelong Newtown resident.
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.