Newtown cops are coming forward, recounting the horrors of the day that Adam Lanza massacred 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The stories of those first on the scene reveal the tragedy from a first-person witness. To those who still seek answers as to what really happened that day, the testimonies of these police officers give a picture of what the gunman left behind.
Upon first reports of gunfire at the elementary school, police officers took off, arriving within minutes at Sandy Hook Elementary. Officer Willam Chapman was in the Newtown police station when first reports of shots and breaking glass came in. The school was more than two miles away, past the center of Sandy Hook. ''We drove as fast as we've ever driven,'' Officer Michael McGowan, who was with Chapman, said.
They made it in under three minutes. When they arrived, they could hear gunfire.
''I got out of the car and grabbed my rifle, and it stopped for a second,'' Officer Chapman said. ''But then we heard more popping. You could tell it was rifle fire. And it was up so close it sounded like it was coming from outside. So we were all looking around for someone to shoot back at.''
The gunfire stopped as officers approached the building, leaving an eery silence. Gunpowder was in the air, the only sounds were shattered glass crunching under officers' feet.
Unsure if there the shooter was still in the building, officers approached with caution, radios turned down. They found two women first, their bodies lying on the lobby floor. Newtown cops knew at that moment that this was real, as they stepped passed the body of the school's psychologist and principal. The principal, Dawn Hochstrung, and psychologist Mary Sherlach would later be lauded for their efforts to protect their students. Both women were killed trying to prevent Lanza from entering the school building.
The hallways were silent, but Officer McGowan was in familiar territory. He had attended Sandy Hook Elementary as a child. But now the halls were silent. ''The teachers were doing a phenomenal job keeping their kids quiet,'' Officer Chapman said.
''One look, and your life was absolutely changed,'' said McGowan.
The officers went from room to room, searching for the shooter. They found a wounded teacher in one room. Her co-workers were applying proper first aid, so they moved on. As officers Chapman and Smith entered another classroom, and the reality of the terrifying day was suddenly revealed. Adam Lanza's body was on the floor, along with the bodies of several children and adults. They searched for life among the children.
One little girl has a pulse. Chapman scooped her up and carried her outside, running for an ambulance. A parent himself, he told the child, "You're safe now. Your parents love you."
The little girl did not survive.
Most of the bodies were found in another classroom, where "'the teacher had them huddled up like a mother hen,'' Detective Frank recalled. ''Simple as that, in a corner.''
Officer Leonard Penna found a girl standing along, surrounded by the bodies of her slain classmates. She was in shock, covered in blood, but uninjured. Later, it would be reported that she played dead to avoid getting shot. Penna grabbed the girl and carried her from the building.
Still, there was silence. Teachers were doing such a good job protecting their students that they had to be coaxed into opening classroom doors. The New York Times reports that the "officers themselves - many of them fathers - instinctively used soothing daddy voices to guide terrified children to safety."
The police officers who chose to tell the stories of that terrifying day are still plagued by what they saw. One detective, driving with his wife and two sons by a roadside memorial two weeks after the shooting, began sobbing uncontrollably. ''I just lost it right there, I couldn't even drive,'' said the detective, Jason Frank.
As the children emerged, the officers tried to reassure them. ''Everything is fine now,'' they said, even as they kept guard for a second shooter. ''Everybody hold hands, close your eyes.'' Officers reportedly made a human shield around the slain teachers and students, to protect the innocent eyes of children being evacuated from the building.
''We're kicking the doors, yelling police, police,'' Officer McGowan said of trying to get teachers to open their doors. ''We were ripping our badges off and putting them up to the window.'' Teachers followed their training, protecting their students.
Detective Frank, who had been off duty and rushed to the scene "so fast he had to borrow a gun" from a colleague, remembers ripping the handles off one of the doors, ''just trying to get through.''
As more officers arrived, the first on the scene even tried to protect other officers from the gruesome scene. Officers standing guard warned newly arriving colleagues not to go in if they had children. Detective Joe Joudy, an elder on the force, spotted Officer Chapman covered in blood. ''I was a mess, and he looks at me and says 'they gotta get you guys out of here.''
''Words can't describe how horrible it was,'' said Detective Joudy, who has been with the department 27 years.
Now the officers -- who reluctantly shared their stories, not wanting to compare their pain with the pain of the victims' families -- face the residual effects of that December day. Many worry about their ability to do their jobs. One has yet to return to work. At least one officer, Tom Bean, said he has already been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
''I can't go into big department stores by myself,'' said Officer Bean, who is married with two sons, 8 and 9. ''I get panic attacks.''
For others, it's not only the images of the children that keep recurring. It is little things. The backpack that was "identical to his 6-year-old's," the Christmas ornaments unfinished on craft tables.
''It's heartbreaking,'' he said. ''These kids will never take those ornaments home to their parents.''
As time continues to pass, as the calendar puts more time between the present and December 14, 2012, the effects of the day will remain vivid in the minds of these officers.
Our hearts go out to all who will continue to grieve over the lives lost, and to those who are still tormented by what they saw that day.
[Image via Shutterstock]