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Nation & World

Families of slain children receive support from broader community

(MCT) — NEWTOWN, Conn. — Like the lives touched by Dawn L. Hochsprung, the candles at her vigil Tuesday night were lit by passing the flame from person to person in the crowd.

In Naugatuck, Conn., where Hochsprung graduated from high school in 1983, the vigil began with the singing of the names of those who died at the Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday. Hochsprung, principal of the school for the last past two years, was remembered as a “born leader.”

Her high school track coach, Ron Aliciene, told hundreds gathered in the rain on the Naugatuck town green Tuesday night that Hochsprung almost was an assistant coach — and that those skills served her well as an educator.

“She never met a challenge she was not able to overcome and conquer,” Aliciene said, recalling the captain of the track team who became a school administrator. “She was bright. She had an outstanding personality and an infectious smile to nurture children. Dawn was a born leader.”

The vigil for Hochsprung — whose funeral and burial are private — ended with moving choruses of “Amazing Grace” and “Silent Night.”

Tuesday also was marked by the funerals of two of the first-graders who died Friday — James Mattioli and Jessica Rekos, both 6. And in Stratford, Conn., mourners stood in line for hours to pay their respects to the family of first-grade teacher, Victoria Soto, who died protecting students in her class. And at a memorial in Newtown, Conn., near the school, a steady stream of people, many of them from New York, placed teddy bears, flowers and notes — and paused to reflect.

The Rev. Gordon Rankin, of the Congregational Church in Naugatuck, said he was troubled that it took such a tragedy for people to put down their TV remotes and cell phones and “raise a light against the darkness.”

“As we look at these candles we know that we have lost so very much,” Rankin said. “I am troubled for a town left to make sense of devastation while the eyes of the nation and the world watch. I know my heart is not alone. I know every heart here is troubled tonight.”

Twenty-five miles away, in Stratford, hundreds of mourners streamed into a funeral home to pay respects Tuesday to Soto’s family in her hometown. It included an honor guard comprised of several police agencies, including the state police and the Stratford, Fairfield and Stamford departments.

Soto’s older cousin, James Wiltsie, said he was awed by the outpouring of affection from friends, acquaintances and strangers who greeted the family during the wake.

“Everybody who talked to me said they loved her. . . . ‘We love Vicki.’ . . . ‘We love Miss Soto,’ ” he said. Teachers from all over the state came to show their solidarity, he said.

“Vicki died protecting her children,” Wiltsie said. “She didn’t call them students. They were her kids.”

Soto was in her third year as a first-grade teacher. She hid her students and is credited with saving many of them.

Speaking on behalf of the family, Wiltsie, a Marine who served in Somalia, said “we want to offer thanks to the world, to the nation and to our community for the outpouring of love we’ve received.”

Univision and Telemundo also covered the Soto wake after interviewing her family members in Puerto Rico. The coverage of the shootings, Soto's role in protecting the children, and her memorial services have drawn great interest in the Latino community, a Telemundo staff member said.

Earlier Tuesday, in Newtown, the funerals of James Mattioli and Jessica Rekos were held at St. Rose of Lima Church, the nexus for vigils, prayers and many funerals and the place for the community to come together to grieve. His funeral was first, and when it ended at about 11:15 a.m., mourners and flowers had arrived for her service at noon.

All day Tuesday, mourners — many of them touched by the shared grief of the community — continued to visit memorials dotting Newtown to pay their respects, some traveling from as far away as New York.

A growing number of mourners have stopped at what has become the main memorial site, just down the road from the school. The makeshift shrine has grown rapidly, as teddy bears, candles and notes are placed by a steady stream of visitors.

On Tuesday afternoon, Perry Kinard, of Long Island, paused at the memorial with his uncle to play “Amazing Grace” on his violin in the cold, damp air. On his guitar, Kinard played a song, “Remember Me,” that he had composed in memory of the 20 first-grade students and six adults gunned down Friday morning.

Kinard was inspired to write the song after seeing a photograph of Noah Pozner, who had loved to read and was described by his mother at his funeral Monday as a “rambunctious little maverick, who was ‘smart as a whip.’ ”

“One of the kids caught my eye, Noah, so I dedicate this song to him,” Kinard said. “ “I don’t know why . . . light was just on him, the way he was smiling it was like there’s something different about that kid, he’s a true soldier.”  

Kinard said he decided to write the song Friday, shortly after hearing of the shooting on his way home from work.

“I was shocked to hear that this random dude just shot these kids and these teachers. I was just like seriously this is . . . that’s crazy . . . why would you do that . . . innocent people that never did no harm to you,” Kinard said. “I was in tears.”

Kinard said he couldn’t sleep that night and sat on the side of his bed in the dark, thinking.

“During the night, everything just came to my head and I wrote down everything, played it out on my guitar, wrote a song,” Kinard said.

One family visiting the memorial said they understood what it was like to lose a family member to violence.

Antoinette Neil-Griffith, of Long Island, said her family always grieves around Thanksgiving. Her brother was murdered three years ago when he was robbed one night returning to his car. Her husband also had a brother who was murdered.

“And now with this, it just brought back a lot of memories,” Neil-Griffith said. “And so it’s a question: why would a person kill all these kids? They’re so innocent.”

Neil-Griffith, a psychotherapist, said she and her husband took their children — ages 16, 12 and 5 — out of school early Tuesday. Her 5-year-old son, Madison, wanted to place two of his teddy bears at the memorial.

“I said pick two of your favorites and he picked them out and we lit a candle, said a prayer, and he started to cry a little while ago,” Neil-Griffith said. “And I said, ‘You’re doing a very good thing by donating stuffed animals. It’s a good gesture from your heart and, you know, now they’re with Uncle Calvin and they’re angels and, you know, you’re part of that.’ ”

Neil-Griffith’s 16-year-old, Noah, said it was scary because his brother is about the same age as the first-graders who died at Sandy Hook. Since the shooting, there has been discussion in his school on Long Island about safety procedures.

“I heard my principal is going to practice it after Christmas break,” Noah Griffith said.

Down the street from the memorial, Kathi Schapp of Torrington, Conn., tried to help by bringing her golden retriever to town. She and a friend brought their dogs that work as therapy dogs at hospitals, nursing homes and with children.

“Not in this capacity, you know. Who ever would have thought that we’d have something like this where we’d be needed,” Schapp said. “This community needs healing . . . . I felt this was something I could give to the community. You know, maybe get someone to smile that who hasn’t smiled since Friday.”

One of the first funerals to be held was Monday for Jack Pinto, a big fan of the New York Giants football team. On Tuesday, Giants receiver Victor Cruz visited the home of the 6-year-old who was buried in a replica Cruz jersey.

Several elementary school-age children played touch football in the front yard of his family's home Tuesday and many wore Giants jerseys or Newtown football or wrestling shirts as they laughed, smiled and hugged.

The children and their families left after several hours. Kids carried autographed Giants footballs and jerseys.

About 45 minutes later, Cruz left the home in an SUV and an escort of five police cruisers, sirens blaring. He later tweeted “much love to the entire Pinto family. Great people with huge hearts.”

In declaring Friday a “Day of Mourning,” Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is calling for the state — and the nation — to come together to mourn lives with such promise having been cut short.

Malloy's “Day of Mourning” includes a moment of silence at 9:30 a.m., about the time of the shootings at Sandy Hook. He has asked houses of worship and government buildings to ring bells 26 times at that half-hour.

“Though we will never know the full measure of sorrow experienced by these families, we can let them know that we stand with them during this difficult time,” Malloy said.

Malloy has written a letter to the governor of every state asking them to join with Connecticut in reflecting on the lives lost in Newtown.

“Mourning this tragedy has extended beyond Newtown, beyond the borders of Connecticut, and has spread across the nation and the world,” Malloy said.  “On behalf of the State of Connecticut, we appreciate the letters and calls of support that have been delivered to our state and to the family members during their hour of need.”


(Hartford Courant staff writers Jenny Wilson, Shawn Beals and Josh Kovner contributed to this report.)

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