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Sandy Hook School Shooting, 10 Years Later

“In some respects, it seems like a lifetime ago. And then there are other times when it feels like it was just yesterday.”

Feelings described as lost innocence, heartfelt grief, survivor's guilt. And emotions that have prompted change, pride and an united community.

"It's hard to put myself back in seven-year-old Jackie's shoes. It's like, you know, it was just yesterday. People need to know what we went through," survivor Jackie Hegarty said.

It's a day that will forever shape the Sandy Hook community. Twenty elementary school students and six educators were killed.

"The worst and longest day of my life - in one sentence," Chief Christopher Vanghele said.

"When you lose a child like we did, I don't think that wound ever gets healed," Jimmy Greene said.

"In some respects, it seems like a lifetime ago. And there are other times where it seems like it was just yesterday," Vanghele said.

12/14

“People need to know what happened.” Survivors recount the Sandy Hook tragedy in their own words.

"I remember, basically, like almost every detail," survivor Ashley Hubner said.

"We had all assumed like, you know, the janitor had knocked over the trash bin or a desk had fallen over, or a chair fell over," Hegarty said.

"We kind of just heard a couple [gunshots] at first, and a lot of people were very confused about what's going on. But I feel like I kind of knew the whole time which almost made it worse," Hubner said.

Survivors heard what they described as "several loud booms," and were told to huddle in the corner.

"My music teacher grabbed a bag of lollipops and quickly moved us all into the closet where she shut the lights out and told us all to sit down and to be quiet," survivor CJ Hoekenga said. "It felt like hours. I honestly could not tell you how long we sat in that closet, but it felt like a very long time."

"My teacher, God bless her, she did so much for us. She was whispering Christmas songs to us because it was towards the holiday season," Hegarty said.

For Vanghele, who was a first responder during the shooting, he knew what needed to be done.

"My immediate reaction is we have to go in," Vanghele said.

Hubner says that when the police came to the door and knocked, everyone in the classroom screamed in fear.

"From the other side of the door came, 'I don't believe you.' And so I had taken my badge off and I slid it under the door," Vanghele said.

When Vanghele saw the children, he recalled saying, "Okay. We're going to hold hands. We're going to walk out and take a left."

The kids were walked down to the firehouse and reunited with their parents.

"We were organized into groups by class and our parents approached us from there. So I remember, I think I saw my dad first. I now know that my parents had been looking for me for quite a minute...I remember seeing how distraught my parents were. I had never seen my parents like that before," Hoekenga said.

Hours went by and parents waited in angst.

"I had that daunting moment when I looked on the back wall and there was a whole group of parents whose, when they called their child's name, didn't say 'present.' And then they were ushered into the back room of the firehouse. That's where I spent most of the rest of my day. Around noon, the state police officer came to me and said, 'Father, do you think you can get some other clergy to come down here? Because the governor is going to be announcing at some point that those children whose names were called did not survive,'" Monsignor Bob Weiss said.

"Finally around three, I think we were told that if you're in this room, your loved one is a fatality," Jennifer Hubbard said.

Jennifer is the mother of Catherine Violet Hubbard, who was killed on Dec. 14.

"It was a mixture of absolute silence and high emotion. And I could still vividly see some of the parents just on the floor," Weiss said.

Weiss said he decided to have mass at the St. Rose of Lima Church that night. It turned out to be a huge service for over 2,000 people. He remembers struggling with what to say and ultimately, he "just had to put [himself] in God's hands."

The Harassment

“You cannot spread lies about people to intentionally harm them.”

"I wanted to tell you to your face because I wanted you to know that I am a mother first and foremost. And I know that you're a father. And my son existed," Scarlett Lewis said.

Threats were made to parents at their children's funerals, people went to funerals aiming to cause trouble, threatening a church and causing an evacuation a week after the tragedy, Weiss recalled.

Conspiracy theorist and alt-right radio host Alex Jones used his site InfoWars to call the tragedy a hoax.

"The day of the shooting, I wasn't even out of the firehouse before Alex Jones was on air saying that it was staged," Lafferty said.

In 2018, nine Sandy Hook families and an FBI agent filed civil defamation lawsuits in Texas and Connecticut against Jones and his companies.

"Jesse was real. I am a real mom. There's nothing out there. Nothing. There's records of Jesse's birth, of me. I mean, I have a history, and there's nothing that you could have found because it doesn't exist that I'm deep state. It's just not true," Scarlett said.

Scarlett is the mother of Jesse Lewis, who was killed in the Sandy Hook tragedy. Jesse saved nine of his classmates' lives by telling them to run during the shooting.

They said that my sister wasn't real, that none of this ever happened.

-Carlee Soto-Parisi, sister of teacher Victoria "Vicki" Soto

Vicki was a first grade teacher who jumped in front of gunfire to save her students. Jones claimed that Carlee was one of several "crisis actors."

Survivors, victims' families and first responders from the tragedy were harassed based on false claims.

"Things would be mailed to my house. There were, you know, threats of rape," Lafferty said.

"Someone came to the house...knocked on the door, and this person demanded to see Ben. 'I know he's here. I know he's alive.' The best way to describe it is, I felt like I was underwater," David Wheeler, father of Ben Wheeler, said.

Lafferty said she's moved six times to avoid being harassed.

The jury ordered Jones to pay $965 million to families and FBI agent William Aldenberg. Before the Connecticut trial, a Texas jury ordered Jones to pay $49 million to Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin, the parents of Jesse, for defamation.

"All you can do is hope that the justice system prevailed, which it did in the Alex Jones [case]. You know, that was a big victory for the parents to have that successful lawsuit against him for that amount of money," Vanghele said.

"Money will never give me anything, money's not going to bring my mom back. I don't think closure is anything that I will see in my lifetime, in regards to Alex Jones. What it does give me is hope that that brave, brave jury slammed down this precedent, that it is not okay to spread these lies and spread this hate and call on people, torture families of high-profile tragedies," Lafferty said.

Healing

“There have been many, many moments of crippling grief. There have been many moments of joy.”

"Who would [have] ever even thought, you know, that someone would come in and shoot a bunch of kids? I don't think anyone really knew how to react correctly," Hubner said.

A community that's spent the last ten years trying to heal and rebuild in different ways.

"I think my innocence got taken away a little too fast," Hegarty said.

"If this is God loving me, then take it. I don't want it," Jennifer said.

She said there isn't a day that goes by where she doesn't talk to her daughter.

"I tell her that I need her help. I tell her more times than not that I miss her. And I always tell her that I love her," Jennifer said.

It's so easy to wonder, how could there be a God? How does God let this happen?

-Jennifer Hubbard

In celebration of what would have been Catherine's 16th birthday, Jennifer put on a butterfly party and pet adoption event in her honor.

"I wouldn't wish this journey on anyone because it is incredibly difficult," Jimmy Greene said.

Jimmy and Nelba Greene lost their daughter Ana Grace. She was six years old.

"Our faith teaches us that what happens here on the Earth is not the end. There have been many, many moments of just crippling grief. There have been many moments of joy...I would not characterize the last ten years as one thing. We know in our hearts that Ana is in paradise right now, and it doesn't make it easier here for us on the day to day, but that knowledge gives us peace of mind," Jimmy said.

To this day, the tragedy is something that continues to have an impact on the community.

"Honestly, Sandy Hook really messed up a lot of things in my life, and just made things very, very difficult. Being pretty young and always having that thought of like, 'Okay, if someone were to come in here right now, what would I do?' And then have like that whole plan or I'd be sitting in a group of people and I'd be like, 'Oh, like, I bet I'm the only one who was in a school shooting here,'" Hubner said.

This was not the hand of God. I mean, evil is real, you know, and unfortunately, evil can be just as powerful as good.

-Monsignor Bob Weiss

For Jennifer, finding peace went hand in hand with her belief in God.

"Faith is about trusting in the innate beauty of God and him wanting the best for us," Jennifer said.

"Those of us who were here and lived through it are still very much a part of it. It's still part of us," Weiss said. "This event has a burden on us now to show the world that you can be healed, that you can be faithful, that you can be strong."

Purpose

“Sometimes, there are issues that find you.”

"Finally being able to speak out has kind of healed my inner child a little bit, kind of because I want to make sure that this doesn't happen to another kid going to school or, you know, somebody wanting to go into a grocery store. This stuff shouldn't be happening. And so, you know, it was kind of running through my head like, you know, I need to be a voice for people who no longer have that voice," Hegarty said.

"I just don't want anyone to ever have to feel how I felt for the past ten years," Erica Lafferty said.

Lafferty is the daughter of Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, the principal killed during the tragedy.

"After ten years and 20 six-year-olds, and six of my colleagues and coworkers were gunned down in Sandy Hook, how can we still be having the same conversations about access to guns?" asked Mary Ann Jacob.

Jacob was a library clerk during the Sandy Hook tragedy.

Hegarty said it's an issue with bigger-picture concerns such as storage laws that are contributing to gun violence.

"Knowing what you know you're fighting for in a cause is so important," she said.

Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy took to the Senate floor in May to address politicians and beg for change after the Uvalde school shooting.

"In a job like this, you're driven to find the issues that move you. And then sometimes there are issues that find you. I was elected to the Senate right before Sandy Hook happened. I was at that firehouse. All those families are friends of mine today. It's easy to just box your ears and pretend that it didn't happen, but we can't ignore the reality because it's here and on a disturbingly regular basis, it's here," Murphy said.

In 2013, Congress took up the Manchin-Toomey Gun Control Legislation. The bill would have required background checks for all gun sales, except when transferred between family members. It failed by six votes.

"I don't think that I could hang up my spikes as a member of the Senate until we had passed something that was going to reduce the likelihood that Sandy Hook ever happens again," Murphy said.

While Congress debated gun reform on the federal level, Connecticut quickly passed bipartisan legislation in response to the Sandy Hook tragedy. On April 4, 2013, then-Governor Dannel Malloy signed the most comprehensive gun violence legislation in U.S. history.

"Nobody should have the kind of military style weapon that the shooter in Sandy Hook had. The things are designed to kill people as quickly as possible and they are now the weapon of choice for mass murders," Murphy said.

In the wake of another mass shooting in 2015, the Manchin-Toomey Gun Control Bill was brought forward again. It failed again.

It's 90 seconds on average to pass a background check. 90 seconds is worth a life.

-Erica Lafferty

"I was just so outraged and upset about it [Uvalde shooting] all day and seeing, you know, a decade later, we're still having these issues with gun violence," Hegarty said.

Hoekenga said there are a lot of anti-gun violence organizations doing great work to combat the issue.

In June 2022, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act was passed. Its provisions include expanding child and family mental health services, strengthening background checks for buyers under the age of 21, establishing new offenses for gun trafficking, and bolstering crisis intervention programs and red flag laws.

"The work that they're doing is so important and that does give me hope. Seeing these activists and these politicians take a stance on these issues is giving [me] hope because it makes me feel like we're working towards something," Hoekenga said.

"I'm very grateful because we've been fighting for so long and I mean, it's been ten years, like this should have happened a lot sooner, but it's getting done now," Hubner said.

Change ten years in the making, but it's a step in the right direction for activists.

"It'll eventually be okay. It will never be okay that my mom was murdered...The epidemic of gun violence in this country will never be okay, but ten years and I can finally say that the good is starting to outweigh the bad," Lafferty said.

Legacy

“The sheer goodness that can come out of things that are just so tragic.”

Twenty children were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School ten years ago. This is the legacy of three: Catherine, Jesse and Ana Grace.

Catherine

The Butterfly Party and everything that it represents is, for me, hope restored, community coming together, and you can feel it on the green. Just people being able to come together and love animals. But what they're encountering is truly Catherine," Jennifer said.

Jennifer said her daughter created an atmosphere where animals are loved. The buttery event is held in Newtown every June, and this year marked its sixth anniversary.

"Everybody at the butterfly party is welcome and there's no cost to anybody to just come, and for kids to have their face painted, or to do arts and crafts, or to walk around, in awe of animals or to possibly adopt animals, it's Catherine alive," Jennifer said.

This year, 10,000 people came out to the butterfly party.

"I remember her in the garden one time with the butterfly. She just let it go. And I finally said to her, 'What? What are you talking about? What? What is happening here?' Because it's intriguing. And she came back to me and she said in her little four or five-year-old innocence, 'I'm just asking them to tell their friends that I'm kind,'" Jennifer said.

The state of Connecticut donated 34 acres of land to the Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary.

"At times it's overwhelming because it's an opportunity that we've been afforded that is humbling and a reminder of the sheer goodness that can come out of things that are just so tragic," Jennifer said.

"I hope she knows how proud I am of her [Catherine]," she continued.

Jesse

Jesse's mother Scarlett founded the Choose Love Movement in her son's honor.

"He left a message on our kitchen chalkboard shortly before he died. Three words: nurturing, healing, love. And I saw that. And I knew that was the way to address the violence that we're seeing in our schools," Scarlett said.

She describes Jesse's message as a "powerful formula of love."

"If you ask human being, do you want love or do you want fear, hatred, frustration, resentment on a platter? Which one are they going to choose? They're going to choose love," Scarlett said.

Scarlett believes Jesse is always with her and she's dedicated her life to making other kids feel safe.

Ana Grace

"Ana was a very loving person and this building wouldn't reflect her if love wasn't found in it," her father Jimmy said.

Ana Grace loved singing and dancing. Now ten years later, the CREC Ana Grace Academy of the Arts Elementary Magnet School exists in remembrance of her.

The school's official dedication ceremony was held in March, just days before she would have turned 16.

"We don't have her in the physical so that makes me very sad and upset, but I'm overcome with the love because we did have her for six-and-a-half years and boy, did we do everything we possibly could to make her know that she was loved," Jimmy said.

"I feel so much gratitude that children get to learn here and that we get to remember Ana in what feels like a very holy way," Ana's mother Nelba said.

Nelba worked with architects to design the school in what her husband described as "a really beautiful expression of love."

CREC was transitioning toward a building to combine the arts magnet schools for elementary and middle schools. Nearly two years after Ana's death, her parents were asked if they'd be amenable to naming the school in her honor.

"And wow, what an amazing, thoughtful way to honor our little girl," Jimmy said.

"In many ways, it feels like we never left. It feels very natural, like a fitting tribute and a fitting way for the community to wrap their arms around us, and for us to wrap our arms around them," Nelba said.

When you first walk into the school, there's a flower that Ana drew on display.

Her father said she loved the color purple and it's featured in just about every room of the school.

"Whether it's in the paint, or whether it's in the carpet, the tiles on the wall, the artwork. All the things she loved are kind of woven into the fabric of this building," Jimmy said.

Today

“I think that Sandy Hook will always be a place where something awful happened. But I also think that Sandy Hook, if we can find that place of commonality will be a place where amazing, amazing things happen.”

The community opened a memorial that's been in development for almost a decade. It's a project meant to honor the lives lost in the Sandy Hook tragedy.

The memorial site was opened to the public in November 2022 for the very first time.

Charlotte Bacon and Jack Pinto were both six years old when they lost their lives. Their moms - who are now devoted friends - pointed out their two children's names among 24 others engraved in stone.

Walking down the pathway to the memorial, they described the meaning behind several creations throughout the site - from the intertwining pathways symbolizing different paths through grief, to the solo Sycamore tree.

"The sacred Sycamore, which is a tree that is known to take punishment, and a beating. But yet...it's been known to be a symbol of love and fertility and protection," Charlotte's mother, Joann Bacon, said.

Another hidden symbol is beneath the welcome sign.

"The pop-up memorials that happened [in] the days following the shooting were all gathered and then incinerated. Those ashes were then put in a box and at the welcome sign as you enter the memorial, they are entombed in that," Joann said.

All of their grief and pain poured into an everlasting monument - a way to never forget those lost that day.

The memorial was partially funded by the town and the state. It was constructed near the rebuilt Sandy Hook Elementary School and can be seen from dusk until dawn.

"Only those who lost a child can really understand the heart that goes into this and what it means when you're putting your child's name in stone to be remembered forever," Tricia Pinto, Jack's mom, said.

Now, ten years after the tragedy, survivors, parents and community members alike are proud to call Newtown home.

I think this place will always feel like home to me.

-Ashley Hubner

"I am very proud to be from Newtown. I love my community," Hoekenga said. "Newtown holds such a big place in my heart."

"Family, friends, faith. That's Newtown," Weiss said.

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