Newtown first responders carry heavy burdens
By MICHAEL MELIA, Associated Press Writer
NEWTOWN, Conn. (AP) — While the people of Newtown do their best to cope with loss and preserve the memories of their loved ones, another class of residents is also finding it difficult to move on: the emergency responders who saw firsthand the terrible aftermath of last week’s school shooting.
Firefighter Peter Barresi was driving through Newtown on Friday when police cars with lights flashing and sirens blaring raced toward his oldest son’s elementary school. After he was sent to Sandy Hook school himself, he saw things that will stay with him forever.
With anguished parents searching for their children, he prepared to receive the wounded, but a paramedic came back empty-handed, underscoring the totality of the massacre. Barresi, whose own son escaped unharmed, later discovered that among the 26 dead were children who played baseball with his son and had come to his house for birthday parties.
“For some of us, it’s fairly difficult,” said Barresi, of the Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire and Rescue Co. “Fortunately most of us did not go in.”
Newtown and environs weathered a fourth day of funerals Thursday, six days after a 20-year-old gunman killed his mother at home, 20 children and six adults at the school and himself for reasons still unknown. Mourners laid to rest Catherine Hubbard, Benjamin Wheeler, Jesse Lewis and Allison Wyatt, all 6 years old; and Grace McDonnell, 7.
A service was held in Katonah, N.Y., for teacher Anne Marie Murphy, 52, who authorities believe helped shield some of her students from the rain of bullets. Roman Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan compared her to Jesus.
“Like Jesus, Annie laid down her life for her friends,” Dolan said. “Like Jesus, Annie’s life and death brings light, truth, goodness and love to a world often shrouded in darkness, evil, selfishness and death.”
A bell tolled Thursday at Newtown’s St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church at the funeral for Catherine, who her family said would be remembered for her passion for animals and her constant smile.
Trinity Episcopal church on Main Street was filled to capacity for the funeral for Benjamin, described as a budding musician and Beatles fan. His service included a rendition of “Here Comes The Sun.” About two dozen Boy Scout leaders lined the front pathway to the church in honor of the former Cub Scout.
In downtown Danbury, mourners filed into the ornate white-pillared First Congregational Church for a memorial service for 30-year-old teacher Lauren Rousseau. Friends wept at the altar as they remembered the spirited, hardworking, sunny-natured woman who brightened their lives with silliness and gave them all nicknames.
The gunman’s mother, Nancy Lanza, also was laid to rest Thursday, in a private ceremony at an undisclosed location in tiny Kingston, N.H., where she used to live. About 25 family members attended, the town’s police chief said.
Gov. Dannel Malloy has asked people across Connecticut to observe a moment of silence at 9:30 a.m. Friday, which will mark a week since the shootings. Places of worship and buildings with bells have been asked to ring them 26 times, for the victims at the school. Officials and clergy in many other states have said they will also participate.
While family, friends and even strangers weep, members of the emergency forces that responded to the shooting, many of them volunteers, are wrestling with frustration, guilt and anguish as they receive counseling from a state intervention team to help them deal with the horrors they saw and heard.
Authorities say the victims were shot with a high-powered, military-style rifle loaded with ammunition designed to inflict maximum damage. All the victims had been shot at least twice, the medical examiner said, and as many as 11 times. Two victims were pronounced dead at a hospital, while all others died in the school.
Initially, only police were allowed to enter the building amid concerns about a second shooter. They are credited with helping to end the rampage by gunman Adam Lanza, who killed himself as officers stormed the building. But some responders struggle with not having been able to do more, questions over what could have been done differently and a feeling that they do not deserve praise.
Firefighter Marc Gold, who rushed to offer help even though his company was not called, said he is haunted by the trauma of the parents and the faces of the police who emerged from the building.
“I saw the faces of the most hardened paramilitary, SWAT team guys come out, breaking down, saying they’ve just never seen anything like this,” said Gold, a member of the Hawleyville Volunteer Fire Department. “What’s really scary to me is I’m really struggling, and I didn’t see the carnage.”
After escorting the last group of children from the school to safety, Gold also was positioned outside the school to help with the injured, but he never had the opportunity.
“Most of my emotions are guilt, guilt because we weren’t able to do something, guilt for the accolades I’m getting,” said Gold, a 50-year-old father of three. “It doesn’t feel good when people say nice things to me. It feels good for a second, and then you feel guilty for feeling good.”
Joel Faxon, a member of the Newtown Police Commission, said the trauma experienced by the officers should be treated no differently from physical injuries.
“The first Newtown police officers on the scene at the Sandy Hook Elementary School minutes after the assassin began his rampage witnessed unspeakable carnage,” said Faxon, adding that the governor and state lawmakers should change laws if needed to ensure the officers receive due treatment and benefits. “We owe them at least this much for facing down such evil.”
One aspect of the tragedy that may help these first responders recover is the outpouring of support from around the world, according to Charles Figley, director of the Traumatology Institute at Tulane University.
“This is an international event. All you have to do is say ‘Sandy Hook first responder’ and everyone nods their head in understanding,” he said. “They don’t have to do it in isolation.”
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was one of the people to visit Newtown on Thursday, stopping by a firehouse.
The fact that responders were able to be of assistance in the tragedy will help ease their burdens, Figley said, but the involvement of so many young victims sets Newtown apart from other shootings. The Connecticut police union, AFSCME Council 15, said it has been offering counseling assistance to members across the state, and neighboring towns that sent officers have provided mandatory counseling for their Newtown responders.
“It would be ludicrous to say this wouldn’t have some kind of permanent effect on anybody who dealt with it,” said George Epstein, operations director for the Connecticut Critical Incident Stress Management Team, which deployed immediately after the shooting to aid the first responders and has been holding small group counseling sessions.
Barresi said the counseling has been helpful to him because it is led by other first responders who have been through similar experiences.
With Newtown enduring a relentless string of children’s funerals and nonstop media attention, Gold said it has been difficult to find the space to process everything, and he appreciated the support he found in the group counseling. He said he will never forget the events of that day, but he hopes the pain dulls with time.
“My heart is broken for these families beyond anything I can explain to you,” he said.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers John Christoffersen and David Klepper in Newtown; Jim Fitzgerald in Katonah, N.Y.; and Frederic J. Frommer in Washington.