Photo: AP Photo/Jessica Hill
Teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary gave their lives as they tried to save their young pupils from a gunman during the worst school shooting in American history – thought to have been triggered by a row the previous day.One teacher died using her body as a human shield to protect her students while the head teacher was shot dead as she lunged at the killer.
Other staff barricaded children in classrooms and even a storage cupboard as the gunman, Adam Lanza, 20, stalked Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Lanza, who was wearing body armour, killed a total of 20 children — the youngest just five — and seven adults before turning the gun on himself.
Before he rampaged through the school, he killed his mother at the home they shared, shooting her in the face with her own gun.
Police were understood to be investigating a claim that Lanza had argued with four school staff members the day before the shooting and that three were murdered the next day.
The fourth was being interviewed by police as officers searched for a motive.
A school spokesman said many more children would have died if not for the prompt actions of their teachers.
One member of staff switched on the school public address system so the sounds of shouting and gunfire would alert other teachers to the unfolding horror.
The noise prompted staff to begin an emergency “lockdown” procedure by moving children into secure areas.
It is understood all the children killed were in just two classrooms, both next to the main entrance to the school. The pupils were first-graders, no more than seven years old.
“These were helpless little children,” said Neil Heslin, whose six-year-old son Jesse was killed. “The question is why — and I guess we will never know.
“It was a cowardly thing he did to the victims and a cowardly thing he did to himself. The way he died — by killing himself like that — was too good. It was just a cowardly way.”
Only one person who was shot survived, indicating that Lanza had embarked on an execution-style spree.
At a press conference, police said they now had “some very good evidence” as to why Lanza embarked on his rampage but refused to divulge what that was.
The evidence was found at the killer’s home and at the school, said Connecticut state police lieutenant Paul Vance, implying that Lanza had left some form of note or recording at both addresses.
The US network NBC claimed that Lanza had had an “altercation” at the school on Thursday.
NBC said the one survivor from the argument was being interviewed yesterday by police. Last night officers still had not officially named the victims, although they had removed their bodies from the school and begun identifying each of the corpses in turn. Among the dead who were identified was Lauren Rousseau, 30, a teacher who lived in Newtown with her mother, Teresa.
Her mother said her daughter had started a permanent job at the school this autumn. “It was the best year of her life,” she said.
The youngest victim to be named last night was Ana Marquez-Greene, six. Her father Jimmy, a jazz saxophonist, said: “As much as she’s needed here and missed by her mother, brother and me Ana beat us all to paradise. I love you, sweetie girl.”
Lanza was described by neighbours and former classmates yesterday as a highly intelligent loner with a possible personality disorder. Others called him a “geek” and a “nerd” who lived alone with his mother. Lanza’s parents divorced three years ago.
Lanza shot his mother Nancy, 52, in the face at their home and then drove three miles to Sandy Hook school in her car. Police said yesterday that Lanza, dressed all in black, walked up to the school, armed with three weapons — an assault rifle and two handguns — and forced his way in, possibly by smashing a window. In the process, he bypassed the school’s security door system.
A chilling recording of radio conversations between Newtown police and state police, released on the internet, shows the school first raising the alarm at 9.35am local time on Friday. The police controller states at 9.36am: “The front glass has been broken. We’re unsure why.” A minute later, the voice states: “All units, the individual I have on the phone is continuing to hear what he believes to be gunfire.”
There remained confusion last night as to why Lanza targeted the school. His mother appears to have been an occasional supply teacher although one member of staff said she did not know Mrs Lanza.
Other reports suggested she spent much of her time at home looking after her son.
The weapons used by Lanza were owned by his mother and kept at their home. The killings have once again pushed America’s lax gun laws to the top of the political agenda. Lanza was armed with a Sig Sauer and a Glock handguns, typically capable of firing 15 rounds and 17 rounds each. He also had a Bushmaster assault rifle, capable of firing 30 rounds before needing reloading. A fourth gun was said to have been found in his mother’s car. In all, more than 100 shell casings were found on the premises.
It was claimed last night that he had even tried to bolster his arsenal by buying another gun on Tuesday — three days before his murderous assault — but was refused because he did not have a “proper” permit. His mother was said to be a gun enthusiast with five registered firearms who taught him to shoot. Dr Janet Robinson, the school superintendent, said the teachers saved many of their pupils. “A lot of children are alive today because of actions the teachers took,” she said.
The shooting spree began after Lanza forced his way into the school, possibly by firing shots at a glass door or window.
The school’s principal, Dawn Hochsprung, and Mary Sherlach, the school’s resident psychologist, were coming out of a meeting when they heard the noise. Mrs Hochsprung was one of the first to try to stop him.
She and other administrators ran toward him. She lunged at Lanza, but he shot her dead. He also shot and injured another teacher, Natalie Hammond, the only victim to survive. Witnesses said the deaths could be heard over the school’s tannoy system.
“She [Mrs Hochsprung] was crying. I thought she was screaming,” said Tori Chop, who is in third grade. “That’s what we heard over the loudspeaker. We heard kids crying.
“We kept hearing gun noises and ‘put your hands up’ … we kept hearing that.”
Tori’s teacher, Teri Alves, like other staff in the school, sprang into action.
“She went out to the door, she locked the door and taped a piece of white tape over the window of the door,” said Tori of her teacher. “And then she told us to go in the corner.” Victoria Soto, 27, was killed when she used her own body to shield her pupils. Miss Soto died in a hail of bullets but is thought to have saved the lives of at least some children.
“She put herself between the gunman and the children and that’s when she was tragically shot and killed,” said her cousin Jim Wiltsie. Mr Heslin’s son Jesse Lewis, who was in Miss Soto’s class, was not saved.
Maryrose Kristopik, a music teacher, barricaded 15 children inside a cupboard as Lanza bashed at the door, said Sophia Lebinski, eight. The child’s mother Brenda Lebinski said: “My daughter’s teacher is my hero.” Lanza was mistaken at first for his brother Ryan, 24, because he had his brother’s identification.
Ryan Lanza, from Hoboken, New Jersey, was questioned about his brother and is said to have told authorities that the killer was autistic and had a personality disorder.
Lanza’s father Peter Lanza, a tax director for General Electric, lives in the affluent town of Stamford, Connecticut, having remarried a year ago.
He paid his ex-wife maintenance of £150,000 a year allowing her and her son to live in a £350,000 home with a swimming pool.
The news of his son’s rampage was broken to Mr Lanza by a local reporter. The journalist said his face turned from “surprise to horror”.
The gunman’s aunt, Marsha Lanza, said he was raised by nurturing parents who would not have hesitated to seek mental health help for him if he needed it.
“Nancy wasn’t one to deny reality,” Marsha Lanza said.
Olivia DeVivo, a former classmate, recalled Lanza as a youngster talking about aliens and “blowing things up” in his earlier school years. But she dismissed this as simply the chatter of an immature schoolboy.
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