The massacre of 26 children and adults at an elementary school in the US state of Connecticut elicited horror and soul-searching around the world even as it raised questions about why the gunman, a 20-year-old described as brilliant but remote, would have been driven to such a crime and how he chose his victims, some as young as five.
Investigators were trying to learn more about the gunman, Adam Lanza, who at least one witness said didn’t say a word as he burst into a classroom, shooting, and later killed himself. The bodies of victims were still inside the school for some time Saturday morning, and authorities appeared poised to start releasing their names.
Police shed no light on the motive for the mass shooting, one of the deadliest in US history, and among school attacks was second only to the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, which left 33 people dead. Reaction was swift and emotional around the world, any many immediately thought of Dunblane – a 1996 shooting in that small Scottish town which killed 16 children and prompted a campaign that ultimately led to tighter gun controls.
President Barack Obama’s comments on the tragedy were one of the most outwardly emotional moments of his presidency.
“The majority of those who died were children – beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old,” Mr Obama told a White House news briefing. He paused for several seconds to keep his composure and wiped an eye. Nearby, two aides cried and held hands.
In tight-knit Newtown, a picturesque New England community of 27,000 people, hundreds of people packed St. Rose of Lima church Friday night and stood outside in a vigil for the 28 dead – 20 children and six adults at the school, the gunman’s mother at home, and the gunman himself.
Just 10 days before Christmas Eve, people held hands, lit candles and sang “Silent Night.”
“These 20 children were just beautiful, beautiful children,” Monsignor Robert Weiss said. “These 20 children lit up this community better than all these Christmas lights we have. ... There are a lot brighter stars up there tonight because of these kids.”
Lanza is believed to have suffered from a personality disorder and lived with his mother, said a law enforcement official who was briefed on the investigation.
Lanza shot his mother, Nancy Lanza, drove to the school in her car and shot up two classrooms around 9:30am on Friday, law enforcement officials said.
A custodian ran through the halls, warning of a gunman, and someone switched on the intercom, perhaps saving many lives by letting them hear the chaos in the school office, a teacher said. Teachers locked their doors and ordered children to huddle in a corner or hide in closets as shots echoed through the building.
The well-liked principal, Dawn Hochsprung, was believed to be among the dead. A woman who worked at the school was wounded.
Adam Lanza attended Newtown High School, and several news clippings from recent years mention his name among the honour roll students.
At least one parent said Lanza’s mother was a substitute teacher there. But her name did not appear on a staff list. And the official said investigators were unable to establish any connection so far between her and the school.
Lanza’s older brother, 24-year-old Ryan Lanza, of Hoboken, New Jersey, was questioned, but a law enforcement official said he was not believed to have had a role in the rampage. Investigators were searching his computers and phone records, but he told law enforcement he had not been in touch with his brother since about 2010.
At one point, a law enforcement official mistakenly identified the gunman as Ryan Lanza. Brett Wilshe, a friend of Ryan Lanza’s, said Lanza told him the gunman may have had his identification. Ryan Lanza apparently posted Facebook page updates on Friday afternoon that read, “It wasn’t me” and “I was at work.”
A law enforcement official said a Glock and a Sig Sauer, both pistols, and a .223-calibre Bushmaster rifle were found in the school and a fourth weapon was found outside the school, and that investigators were going to shooting ranges and gun stores to see if Lanza had frequented them
Adam Lanza and his mother lived in prosperous Newtown, about 60 miles north-east of New York City, where neighbours are doctors or hold white-collar positions at companies such as General Electric, Pepsi and IBM.
Lanza’s parents filed for divorce in 2008, according to court records. His father, Peter Lanza, lives in Stamford, Conn., and works as a tax director for General Electric.
The gunman’s aunt Marsha Lanza said her nephew was raised by kind, nurturing parents who would not have hesitated to seek mental help for him if he needed it.
“Nancy wasn’t one to deny reality,” Marsha Lanza said, adding her husband had seen Adam as recently as June and recalled nothing out of the ordinary.
Catherine Urso, of Newtown, said her college-age son knew the killer and remembered him for his alternative style. “He just said he was very thin, very remote and was one of the goths,” she said.
Joshua Milas, who graduated from Newtown High in 2009 and belonged to the school technology club with him, said Adam Lanza was generally a happy person but that he hadn’t seen him in a few years.
“We would hang out, and he was a good kid. He was smart,” Joshua Milas said. “He was probably one of the smartest kids I know. He was probably a genius.”
An official said it was not clear that Adam Lanza had a job, and there was no indication of law enforcement interviews or search warrants at a place of business.
Meanwhile, a long-simmering national debate on gun control exploded again.
Frank DeAngelis, principal of Colorado’s Columbine High School, where a massacre in 1999 killed 15 people, said that “these senseless deaths” have to stop.
In Washington, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence organised a vigil at the White House, with some protesters chanting, “Today IS the day” to take steps to curb gun violence. In New York’s Times Square, a few dozen people held tea lights in plastic cups, with one woman holding a sign that read: “Take a moment and candle to remember the victims of the Newtown shooting.”
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard described the attack as a “senseless and incomprehensible act of evil.” In China, which has seen several knife rampages at schools in recent years, the attack quickly consumed public discussion.
Panicked parents had raced to the Sandy Hook school, where police told youngsters to close their eyes as they were led from the building so that they wouldn’t see the blood and broken glass.
Schoolchildren – some crying, many looking frightened – were escorted through a parking lot in a line, hands on one another’s shoulders.
Robert Licata said his 6-year-old son was in class when the gunman burst in and shot the teacher. “That’s when my son grabbed a bunch of his friends and ran out the door,” he said. “He was very brave. He waited for his friends.”
He said the shooter didn’t utter a word.
Kaitlin Roig, a teacher at the school, said she implored her students to be quiet.
“I told them we had to be absolutely quiet. Because I was just so afraid if he did come in, then he would hear us and just start shooting the door. I said we have to be absolutely quiet. And I said there are bad guys out there now and we need to wait for the good guys to come get us out,” Roig told ABC News.
“If they started crying, I would take their face and say it’s going to be OK. Show me your smile,” she said. “They said, we want to go home for Christmas. Yes, yeah. I just want to hug my mom, things like that, that were just heartbreaking.”