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Ten years after the mass school shooting at Sandy Hook, the town has erected a memorial

sandy hook memorial.PNG
Bryan Woolston
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AP
Flowers lay next to the name of Charlotte Bacon, carved in the stone of a memorial dedicated to the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in Newtown, Connecticut, Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022.

Ten years after the mass school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, the town has erected a memorial that incorporates many of the gifts sent to the community after the tragedy.

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, took place 10 years ago this Wednesday. Letters, artwork and other objects poured into the town from strangers across the country in the subsequent days. Davis Dunavin of member station WSHU reports that many of those items have now ended up in a different form, as part of a memorial honoring the tragedy's victims.

DAVIS DUNAVIN, BYLINE: Newtown was flooded with gifts and support after the shooting. Public works director Fred Hurley was one of several town officials and volunteers who had to handle an unexpected logistical challenge in December of 2012.

FRED HURLEY: It was flowers. It was teddy bears, hundreds of thousands and maybe millions of snowflakes that were sent in boxes and in mailbags from all over the country, of schoolchildren that had traced these snowflakes.

DUNAVIN: They also received at least 65,000 teddy bears and hundreds of thousands of letters.

HURLEY: The outpouring was staggering.

DUNAVIN: A lot of the letters and artwork ended up at the town's municipal center. Newtown resident Yolie Moreno walked in one day shortly after the tragedy.

YOLIE MORENO: The entire length of the hall was decorated with banners and quilts and artwork and tables and trays and trays and trays of letters. And, you know, I asked, you know, what are we going to do with this stuff?

DUNAVIN: Moreno became one of dozens of volunteers that helped sort and organize the gifts and letters. But she went even further.

MORENO: This was about bearing witness.

DUNAVIN: She started to take photos of the gifts. Her website embracingnewtown.com documents some 23,000 cards, letters and artwork, though it's only a fraction of what came in. She shows me one drawing.

MORENO: Yeah. There's a picture of, you know, two kids crying...

DUNAVIN: With a little poem underneath it.

MORENO: "We know you may be sad. You may have lost a friend. You have every right to cry. We all know it's hard to say goodbye." I still cry at this stuff.

DUNAVIN: But there was much more than letters and art.

CHRIS KELSEY: You know, you get a pallet of bicycles in or a pallet of sleds.

DUNAVIN: That's Newtown's former tax assessor, Chris Kelsey. He helped the town find a warehouse to keep a lot of the gifts. Newtown gave away a lot of them to shelters, schools and hospitals, but they offered items first to the families who lost loved ones. Chris Kelsey remembers one of those families, a dad who came in with his son to the warehouse right before Christmas.

KELSEY: But they weren't able to do any of their Christmas shopping because, you know, life had been turned upside down for everybody. For teddy bears, we really hadn't started sorting them. We were just piling up. His son was actually able to climb the pile of teddy bears and grab onto the roof rafters.

DUNAVIN: And there were also all those roadside memorials that had sprung up all over town. The town had to make a difficult decision about those, too.

PAT LLODRA: What do you do with the hundreds of thousands of things that are on your street corners, the signs and the teddy bears and the flowers and the vases and the artwork? That has to be dealt with.

DUNAVIN: That's Pat Llodra. She was Newtown's first selectman, the town's top elected official. This was December, and the weather was taking a turn.

LLODRA: We didn't want it to just start looking awful as a very sad reminder. We wanted the beauty of it to be sustained and remain in people's minds. But we knew with - you know, we had snow and rain. We had all that weather stuff. We needed to deal with the reality of that stuff.

DUNAVIN: Right around Christmas, Llodra asked the world to please stop sending gifts, and then she announced many of them would be turned into what she called sacred soil to be used in a future memorial to the tragedy. Essentially, they'd be cremated, including the roadside memorials. A few nights after Christmas, officials drove around town to gather them up.

HURLEY: All of these items, the candles, the cards, the animals, anything that was out there in the snow. In some cases, we had to literally dig the items out of the snow.

DUNAVIN: Public works director Fred Hurley says it was mostly a quiet night, until one woman saw them taking down a banner.

HURLEY: And she got very emotional about it, that you can't take my banner and throw it away. And we explained again what, ultimately, we were going to do, that we were going to take all of these memorial items. They were going to be cremated, and they were going to go in forever to the memorial. And that put her mind at peace.

DUNAVIN: They eventually took many of the leftover gifts to an industrial disposal facility. Yolie Moreno was there, the volunteer who helped document many of the cards and letters. We watched footage of the burn together.

MORENO: Here's, like, teddy bears and flags, and I can see my boxes of letters. You become really familiar with a lot of it. It's very surreal. It was surreal then and even more surreal now that I'm looking at it. Like - and you look through this window, and you can see it burning, and then it comes out into a box.

DUNAVIN: What remained was a gray sandy powder, what they call the sacred soil. Fred Hurley shows me a sample.

HURLEY: There's not a lot to describe about it. It's not like there's a lot of elegant colors, but it just really looks like a gray sand, which is what's left over after the cremation. And that's metals and cards and teddy bears and snowflakes all together.

DUNAVIN: The sacred soil waited years to become a prominent part of Newtown's memorial until the memorial opened last month. It's on a bucolic site, the home of a former boys' club. It's down the road from Sandy Hook Elementary School, which was torn down and rebuilt in 2016, a round pool of water encircled by 26 flat slabs, each bearing the name of someone who died, 20 children and six educators. In the center of the pond is a single tree. A mother and daughter from Sandy Hook placed a red rose on each slab shortly after the memorial opened.

KRISTINE METZGER: I actually can't believe it's been 10 years.

DUNAVIN: That's Kristine Metzger.

METZGER: We wanted to come visit it, even though it's hard. Even when we went to the Sandy Hook school when it was first built, the new one, it was heartbreaking, heartbreaking that something could happen like this in our town.

DUNAVIN: And the sacred soil? As you enter the grounds and walk down the path to the memorial, there's a stone box inscribed with words from President Barack Obama when he came to Newtown after the tragedy.

BARACK OBAMA: I am very mindful that mere words cannot match the depths of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts. I can only hope it helps for you to know that you're not alone in your grief, that our world, too, has been torn apart, that all across this land of ours, we have wept with you.

DUNAVIN: Newtown has no plans for an official ceremony on December 14, the day that marks 10 years since the shooting. For NPR News, I'm Davis Dunavin in Connecticut.

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Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.