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Newtown shooting: A Westport mother's panic and -- finally -- relief

Updated 4:30 pm, Wednesday, December 19, 2012
  • Twenty-six teddy bears --- one representing each victim at Sandy Hook Elementary School --- and flowers form a memorial just down the street from the school in Newtown. Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images / Getty Images
    Twenty-six teddy bears --- one representing each victim at Sandy Hook Elementary School --- and flowers form a memorial just down the street from the school in Newtown. Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images

 

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I live in Westport, but my children go to school in Newtown. I share custody 50-50 with my ex, week on, week off. After we divorced, he stayed in Newtown where we lived -- I packed up my marbles and came home.

On my week, I chauffeur my two daughters, 13 and 10, back and forth from Westport to school in Newtown -- at least 24 trips a week including sports and social activities. Fifth and eighth graders are busy. As a practicing attorney and mother, I'm busy, too.

I was busy on Friday morning, Dec. 14. I left court in Bridgeport and headed south on I-95, back to my office in Westport. I had a lot on my mind. I had a lot of work to do. Around 10 a.m., my phone rang. It was a robo call from my kids' school. The voice said, "Due to reports of a shooting, all schools are on lockdown."

That was it. That was all the information I got. My heart popped, my guts twisted, I couldn't breathe. I screamed at the recording, "What do you mean? What shooting? Where? At which school? Are my children alright?"

Panic and terror gripped me, and I raced on the highway. But where was I going?

Still travelling south toward Westport, I got off at Exit 24 to turn around, and I called my ex. "I'm coming over," I told him. "I'm on my way to you right now. I'm coming to Newtown." He wasn't so sure about that idea. But this was an emergency of some sort, and I had to get to my kids. I wanted to rush to their schools, scoop them up and run. I wanted to wrap them in my arms and rush them to safety.

But the radio said no one could get near the schools. Perimeters had been set up to keep everyone out (parents included) and to keep the children locked in. Was this Armageddon?

I raced "home" toward my old house, my ex and his wife, desperate to get in front of a television to see what was going on. En route, I learned bites of information in what seemed like an intermittent, staccato feed of texts and calls to my phone. The shooting was in Sandy Hook Elementary School. Neither of my children go there, thank God. Shooter still at large. Oh my God. Is he going to my kids' schools next? I was sick. I was in a panic.

I arrived at my ex's house around 10:30. Turning on the television, I tried to decipher what was going on. It was Greek to my brain. Images of horror flashed on the screen. I saw pictures of children being led out of school. One girl's face said it all. I could see her anguish, her terror. Law enforcement was everywhere, SWAT teams with assault rifles, K-9 units, ambulances. I knew by the number of responders, and the type of response, this was real. I knew it was bad. I still didn't know how bad.

Then came the news of sickening carnage. There is no place in the human mind to put this information, and it bounces out only to come back in and lodge in a place newly created just for this.

I wanted my children. Now. Right now! I was furious at the schools for keeping them from me, even though I knew they were doing the right thing. I paced like a mother lion in a cage, her cubs kept from her.

Finally, at around 1:30 p.m. we got another robo call and an email from the schools giving us the all clear. It said: "The lockdown has been lifted for Newtown Public Schools. Your children will be coming home on their normal bus run today. Thank you."

Now what to do? Keep it normal, let the girls them come home from their separate schools on the bus? That idea lasted for about 30 seconds. Nothing was going to stop me from getting my kids from their schools. My ex, his wife, and I got in one car and drove to each school. I knew I had to tell my daughters the most difficult news of their lives. I had to shatter their innocence and end their childhoods as we has known them. I had to tell them that 20 little children died today, had been murdered, had been shot in their classrooms along with their teachers and the principal.

We went to the Middle School first. We entered through the front door and had to wait in a line in the hallway full of anxious parents to sign my older daughter out. An administrator had a makeshift yellow legal pad on which parents had to sign their names once they saw their children. She kept saying to every adult she saw, "Don't tell me, I don't want to know, please don't tell me." Apparently, she had not heard the news yet. And at this moment, she didn't want to.

We hugged our daughter, trying for now to act like nothing much had happened, kind of like, "Hi, glad to see you." She wasn't buying it. Once outside, she grilled us. "What happened? Why are you here? Why did you pick me up?" When we got in the car, we told our daughter that there had been a shooting at the Elementary School in Sandy Hook and that some people were dead. We tried to keep it as unemotional as we could and vague. We tried to keep the terror and grief out of our voices and eyes. Shock cooperated with us. Struck numb, we were able to keep our emotions in check a little longer.

Next to the Intermediate School for daughter No. 2. We stood outside the school, unable to enter. There was a long line of parents waiting to give their names to a teacher. One teacher relayed the name to another teacher inside. That teacher told the office to summon that child. No one was allowed in. Each child appeared one by one, and had to be signed out.

The teacher would ask the student, "Is this your mom, yes or no?" Or, "Do you know this person, yes or no?" If the child said yes fast enough, the teacher released the child.

When I saw my second child, I tried so hard to be casual. But she, too, knew something was wrong. She kept asking, "What's wrong, why are you here?" We kept saying, let's all get to the car, we can talk about it at home all together. But that did not work. Once in the car, she pressed me, and I had to tell her.

I said, "Sweetheart, there was a shooting at the Elementary School in Sandy Hook this morning, and some people are hurt really bad, and some people are not going to make it, and some of them are children." I will never forget the look on her 10-year-old face.

The girls told me about the hours they had spent hiding under their desks, how a teacher slid lifesavers across the floor to keep her students quiet, how an announcement came over the public address system telling students there has been a shooting in a school, and to "get down and be quiet." How a bucket had been put out in a classroom as a makeshift toilet.

This was no scene from a movie, no game from an app on your iPad. There is no delete button. This really happened, and it is permanent, irreversible.

Back at the house, we all watched television for just a little while. Long enough for my children to see the President of the United States come on television and shed tears over what happened in their town that day.

Two days later, many batches of homemade cookies and vigils and services later, three trips to the Intermediate School gymnasium for grief counseling later, boxes of donated stuffed animals and toys later, the President's motorcade arrived at the high school. He entered the auditorium -- the one where my children sing in the chorus, have performed in pageants and plays -- to comfort the bereft and the heartsick, to console those in despair. He spoke about the need for change. He said, "Enough."

So the question becomes, are our laws protecting us or harming us? Are they guaranteeing our freedom or making us prisoners? In our great democracy, it takes a majority vote to pass a law. Will these dark and desperate days unite us into a majority that creates laws that free us from a reign of terror? Can we agree on laws that would allow us to promise that nary a drop of innocent blood shall ever be shed on a school floor again?

Susan F. Filan writes "Law Matters," a legal-issues column in the Westport News.