NEWTOWN, Conn.--"Oh God," one man said as he stared at a row of 26 glowing candles in front of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church at a Friday night prayer vigil. "Twenty kids."
That unbelievable, devastating fact is still ripping through this small, affluent Connecticut town, where a gunman entered a local elementary school on Friday morning and shot and killed 26 people, most of them children under the age of 10, before turning the gun on himself. According to the Hartford Courant, an entire kindergarten class at Sandy Hook School is unaccounted for, but the police have not yet confirmed that fact, nor are they yet releasing the names of the victims. The shooting is the second worst in U.S. history, after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007.
At a Friday night prayer vigil, hundreds of residents poured outside the doors of St. Rose's Catholic Church, unable to fit into the packed building full of people mourning the young victims. The scene was eerily quiet, except for the flash of news cameras. Some people hugged each other, weeping, while others quietly recited the rosary in unison.
Click image to see more photos. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
Many residents of the town, where well-maintained clapboard homes with white picket fences dot the hilly landscape, are still struggling to come to grips with how such a horrific mass shooting could happen anywhere, much less in their sleepy town.
"If it happened here it could happen anywhere," said Danielle Collins, who attended the vigil. "It's shocking."
Collins said she brought her 4 young children, who do not attend Sandy Hook, to try to help them understand what happened. Her youngest child, a bouncy pre-schooler, was unable to comprehend the crime.
"He just says, 'Why you crying Mommy? Why you crying?'" Collins said of her toddler. "He's very brave and very trusting, you know? As I'm sure those kids inside were."
Felix Benitez, the owner of a children's hair salon and consignment shop called "Fun Kuts" just down the road from Sandy Hook School, told Yahoo News he didn't have a single customer all day but was too in shock to close the store. The large store has salon chairs that look like red or yellow cars to entice little customers who are scared of scissors to sit still for their cuts. Benitez takes photos of the children after they get their hair cut, which he displays in the store. "So you see these are the pictures of the kids from Newtown, these are our customers," Benitez said, staring at the photos of smiling children. "I keep on looking at this, I'm just hoping it's not any of them."
That feeling of dread echoed across Newtown, a town small enough that nearly everyone fears they will know at least one of the affected families once the names are released. As the sun went down Friday evening, families of the victims made their way to the town fire station, which is located just a stone's throw from Sandy Hook Elementary. There, the families are offered grief counseling.
Jackie, a Newtown local who didn't want her last name used, said she expects the community will try to do something to stem the families' grief.
"I would expect there would be something because that's just the way we are. But it's just too early, nothing's going to help them now," Jackie said.
Jackie's niece was teaching at Sandy Hook when the shooting started. "Her classroom was nearby and she heard the shots and shut the door to keep the kids safe," Jackie said. "She's a wreck."
Marci Benitez, the co-owner of Fun Kuts, said a child from the school came to the store with his mother, who had just picked him up from the school after the shooting. "He had seen two people on the floor. They were knocking on his door," she said of the child. "It's terrible. I can't stop shaking."
Many locals said that at first they thought only one teacher had been shot in the foot, based on a local news report. The staggering body count number that gradually emerged throughout the afternoon floored people, and at first seemed unbelievable.
Steven Reps, 48, a computer storage architect and 10-year Newtown resident, was volunteering in his daughter's first grade classroom at Sandy Hook when he heard what he described as "commotion" in a nearby classroom.
"It sounded like a custodian had dropped a stack of chairs," Reps said. But he quickly realized it was gunfire. He and the teacher locked the classroom door and gathered the children in the back of the room.
Police came and evacuated the class, Reps said, urging the children to run out of the building using their hands like blinders to shield their eyes.
Reps called the experience "surreal," adding, "I'm still waiting to wake up."
Police say the gunman is Adam Lanza, 20. According to ABC News, Lanza is believed to have shot his mother at their home before driving to the school, wearing a bullet proof vest, and opening fire.
Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy, who met with grieving families in the fire house, said in a news conference Friday afternoon that "evil visited this community."
"The majority of those who died today were children, beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old," President Barack Obama said in an emotional statement about the shootings today. "They had their entire lives ahead of them. Birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own."
Beth Fouhy contributed reporting from New York.