December 18, 2012

Grandfather figure offers a haven to kids who escaped shooting

A retired psychologist who lives near Sandy Hook Elementary comforts a slain teacher's students and calls their parents.

The Associated Press

NEWTOWN, Conn. — Gene Rosen had just finished feeding his cats and was heading from his home near Sandy Hook Elementary school to a diner Friday morning when he saw six small children sitting in a neat semicircle at the end of his driveway.

Gene Rosen
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Gene Rosen of Newtown, Conn., becomes emotional Monday as he talks about providing shelter to six of “Mrs. Soto’s” students after they had run away from the deadly massacre last Friday.

The Associated Press

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A school bus driver was standing over them, telling them things would be all right. It was about 9:30 a.m., and the children, he discovered, had just run from the school to escape a gunman.

"We can't go back to school," one little boy told Rosen. "Our teacher is dead. Mrs. Soto; we don't have a teacher."

Rosen, a 69-year-old retired psychologist, took the four girls and two boys into his home, and over the next few hours gave them toys, listened to their stories and called their frantic parents.

Rosen said he had heard the staccato sound of gunfire about 15 minutes earlier but dismissed it as an obnoxious hunter in the nearby woods.

"I had no idea what had happened," Rosen said. "I couldn't take that in."

He walked the children past his small goldfish pond with its running waterfall, and the garden he made with his two grandchildren, into the small yellow house he shares with his wife.

He ran upstairs and grabbed an armful of stuffed animals. He gave those to the children, along with some fruit juice, and sat with them as the two boys described seeing their teacher being shot.

Victoria Soto, 27, was a first-grade teacher killed when 20-year-old Adam Lanza burst into her classroom. It wasn't clear how the children escaped harm, but there have been reports that Soto hid some of her students from the approaching gunman. The six who turned up at Rosen's home did apparently have to run past her body to safety.

"They said he had a big gun and a little gun," said Rosen, who didn't want to discuss other details the children shared.

Rosen called the children's parents, using cellphone numbers obtained from the school bus company, and they came and retrieved their children.

One little girl, he said, spent the entire ordeal clutching a small stuffed Dalmatian to her chest and staring out the window looking for her mommy.

And one little boy brought them all a moment of levity.

"This little boy turns around, and composes himself, and he looks at me like he had just removed himself from the carnage and he says, 'Just saying, your house is very small,' " Rosen said. "I wanted to tell him, 'I love you. I love you.' "

Rosen said Sandy Hook had always been a place of joy for him. He taught his 8-year-old grandson to ride his bike in the school parking lot and took his 4-year-old granddaughter to use the swings.

"I thought today how life has changed, how that ground has been marred, how that school has been desecrated," he said.

He said it wasn't his training as a psychologist that helped him that day -- it was being a grandparent.

A couple of hours after the last child left, a knock came on his door. It was a frantic mother who had heard that some children had taken refuge there. She was looking for her little boy.

"Her face looked frozen in terror," Rosen said, breaking down in tears.

"She thought maybe a miracle from God would have the child at my house," he said. Later, "I looked at the casualty list ... and his name was on it."

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