Reporter 101: What stayed with me most after covering the killing of 26 children at Sandy Hook

debrainnewtownThere are few words that sum up how people in Newtown, Connecticut are feeling right now. The one I think best fits: Inconsolable.

WUSA9 sent a team to cover this unthinkable tragedy. Photographer Chris “Stewie” Mullen, Field Producer Cris Mullen, Satellite Operator Kurt Brooks and I spent several days on the ground, in the community, talking to witnesses, people who knew victims, and people from neighboring towns who volunteered to help.

Bob Campbell, of Newtown, attended Sandy Hook Elementary School when he was a kid, “How somebody could go and be so horrific and kill little kids. They had nothing to do with it.”

The image of Campbell barely keeping it together during our interview will never leave me. He had just come from St. Rose of Lima Church where he went with his family to pay his respects the day after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.

The other interview forever etched in my mind is with Roy Horvath. He is the head teacher for a before- and after-school program at the elementary school, and knows several of the children. It is his gasp, “Oh my God, it can’t be!” when I showed him the newly published list of victims (at his insistence) that defined the stories we told while in Newtown. We quickly realized most everyone in the 27,000-strong town had a connection to this tragedy. Horvath had left 5 minutes before the shooting began. He said he wished he would have stayed so he could have done something.

I had worked for 6 years in Connecticut, and knew Newtown. I’d covered happy stories there, and don’t remember there ever being any big crime.  It’s the town that’s the example for small, quaint New England towns, with Christmas lights strung through the center of town, and little shops where everyone knows each other.

On Sunday, we received the breaking news from Lt. J. Paul Vance from the Connecticut State Police that someone had called St. Rose of Lima Church, the spiritual hub in town, during the noon mass, and threatened to shoot up the place. The church was evacuated. Anna Wood of Oxford, CT explained her thoughts the moment she heard the Monsignor, “I look up and I said, if anything has to happen, protect the kids.”

Kathy Hatzmann evacuated with her daughter Brianna. She says she didn’t hesitate, “I didn’t want to be another one of those grieving moms.”

Memorials started to sprout up everywhere, all paying tribute to the 20 littlest victims slaughtered in the most unimaginably violent way, and the 6 adults who dedicated themselves to shaping their little lives.

Field Producer Cris Mullen coordinated our coverage. He says what sticks with him most is “Teddy bears, one for each one of the children was killed, it’s hard. And I think the hardest part for me was seeing other people sad. ”

Photographer Chris Mullen says it hit him in the gut as a dad of two small kids, “When I got home, I gave my kids a big hug.”

Satellite Operator Kurt Brooks said he wanted to be respectful to the town, and kept that top of mind as he set up our satellite truck, and live shots.

As for me, I think what struck me most is seeing the birth dates written on some of the memorials for the 20 littlest victims, many were born in 2006, and to me, it seems incredibly unfair that anyone born in ’06 should have to die.

These memories will never leave. We met so many people in their saddest hour, including former Sandy Hook bus driver Marsha Moskowitz, “Grace and Dylan and the rest of them are gonna watch over us.”

After the live trucks, after the funerals, after the holidays, we will never forget the huge hearts we met, and a simple town that became ground zero for pain.


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