As Newtown gunman roamed school, teachers rushed to hide kids
NEWTOWN, Conn. — Just before 10 a.m. Friday, Robert Licata’s wife called in a panic. The Newtown school district had sent an alert to parents.
All the schools had been locked down, it said. There were reports of gunfire.
Licata’s wife, who’d been on her way to the gym, swung by a high school. Nothing. Then she drove to Sandy Hook Elementary, where their 6-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter went to school.
That’s when she knew. She couldn’t even get close — too many police cruisers, too many ambulances. So her husband, heart pounding, drove to a firehouse near the school where parents had huddled. Police and teachers were walking children there, some in single file, their tiny hands gripping one another’s shoulders.
Within minutes, Licata saw his daughter. The second-grader ran to him, crying. You’re OK, he told her. You’re safe.
Over the next hour, Licata, 52, watched class after class pour into the firehouse. Then the stream of children stopped.
Two first-grade classes were missing.
One of them was his son’s.
Earlier that morning in Newtown, 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed his mother, authorities said. He then drove her Honda about five miles to Sandy Hook Elementary, wearing black military-style fatigues and carrying his brother’s ID and at least three guns.
Lanza had gone to high school in Newtown, a well-to-do western Connecticut community of about 28,000 near the New York state line, where the holiday season brims with tree lightings and carolers. It was unclear what connection — if any — the dark-haired young man had to Sandy Hook Elementary, which sits at the end of a two-lane road lined with barns converted to houses.
Lanza parked in the fire lane by the school’s main entrance, law enforcement sources said. Finding the main door locked, Lanza either smashed or shot the glass to get inside, where nearly 700 students in kindergarten through fourth grade were reading, drawing, scribbling notes.
Many children didn’t realize the loud bangs they heard were gunfire. Maybe a custodian knocked over something? Some pans fell?
But the adults knew something was awry. Someone had flicked on the loudspeaker, and the sounds staffers heard clearly were not part of a drill. Teachers hurried their students into gym closets, coat cubbies — any hiding space they could find.
Kaitlin Roig rushed 15 small children into a bathroom and heaved a bookshelf in front of the door, the first-grade teacher told ABC News. Inside with them, she turned the lights off and told her class: Be quiet.
Some children whimpered. Some begged to go home. One tried to put on a brave face.
“I know karate, so it’s OK,” the student told her. “I’ll lead the way out.”
In the school library, fourth-grader Geneva Cunningham listened to the loudspeaker. She heard a scream, then deep breathing.
Geneva was among 20 students whom teachers herded into a closet. It’s a just a drill, they reassured the children. Geneva heard glass shattering.
“We thought it was an animal at first,” she said.
In another classroom, student Brooke Kinsey and her classmates huddled in their coat cubbies while their teacher read them a book. At one point, someone started pounding on the classroom door.
The gunman? Was he trying to get in?
The pounding stopped.
About 9:30 a.m., someone called 911.
“Six-seven, Sandy Hook school,” a dispatcher told emergency responders, according to recordings obtained by the New York Post. “The caller is indicating she thinks there is someone shooting in the building.”
Police and paramedics swarmed the school, though it’s unclear whether the gunman was still wending his way through the halls when they arrived. The recordings capture the competing tones in the first responders’ words — sometimes dispassionate, sometimes heated — as well as the ringing of phones in the background.
“Coming at me — downstairs wing!” one responder said, his words blurring into one another. “Come up the driveway, left stairway.”
One responder hid behind a garbage bin on the school grounds. Another said he was staked out on the school’s southeast side.
“Be advised,” one responder said, sounding out of breath. “We should have multiple weapons, including one rifle and shotguns.”
Again and again, the phrase “medical emergency” buzzed over the radio.
“What is the number of ambulances you will require?” a dispatcher asked.
“They don’t know,” a woman replied. “They’re not giving us a number.”
Then came what, in retrospect, was a chilling comment:
“The scene is not active — not active at this time,” a responder said about a minute later. “Reduce your speed, but continue. No need for further response.”
At the firehouse, Robert Licata had little to do but worry about his son. Was he OK? How about the boy’s beloved teacher, Victoria Soto?
“Your faith kicks in,” Licata recalled later, “and you hope and pray that all the children in the room were hidden somewhere, and you pray that the gunman did minimal damage.”
Finally, his wife got a call from a friend.
Their son was alive.
As the boy told them later, when the gunfire began, Soto had pushed the kids out of harm’s way. But the gunman burst into Room 10 and opened fire.
Licata’s son and some classmates ran past the gunman, out of the school and to a nearby road. Another parent, driving up to the campus, saw the group of kids, pulled over and asked what they were doing. She had been going to Sandy Hook to deliver a gingerbread house.
“Someone is trying to kill us. We were told to run,” the children said, according to the Stamford Advocate.
The mother tried to call the school. No answer. So she rushed the children to the police station.
And that’s where Licata found his son.
He wrapped the boy in his arms, tightly.
In the end, the gunman killed 26 people at the school: six adults and 20 students, ages 6 and 7. He shot many of them several times. Then he killed himself.
On Saturday, officials released a list of the dead. The 24th name was Victoria Soto.
Powers reported from Los Angeles, Serrano from Washington and Semuels from Connecticut. Times staff writers Marisa Gerber, Andrew Khouri, Laura J. Nelson and Tina Susman contributed to this report.
The Latinx experience chronicled
Get the Latinx Files newsletter for stories that capture the multitudes within our communities.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.