HARTFORD, Conn. — On Dec. 14, 2012, 26 families huddled inside a firehouse in Newtown, holding onto their last fragments of hope that quickly drained from the cold, crowded space.

All around them, frantic parents, spouses and siblings searched for the gaze they wanted so desperately to lock onto in the crowd, the face of the person they loved who was inside Sandy Hook Elementary School that morning when a lone gunman shot his way in.

For what felt like an eternity, they watched the reunions happen over and over, a swirl of relief and grief and fear, and they watched the crowd in the firehouse dwindle.

Carlee Soto Parisi in 2012. Her sister, Victoria Soto, a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was killed in the Dec. 14 shooting. Jessica Hill/Associated Press

A quiet understanding settled over them as the group grew smaller and smaller until there were 26 families left to wait in the space that many likened to being in hell.

That afternoon, then-Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy stepped before the families and delivered the news that was nearly impossible to speak.

“If you have not been reunited with your loved one, you are not going to be reunited with that loved one,” he said. He said tried to avoid using the words death or dead for the sake of the young siblings in the room.


“I was trying my best to convey the situation as we knew it,” he said recently. “And the reality was that if they were waiting to see their daughter who was a teacher, or their child who they’d seen off to school that morning, or their spouse who worked at the school, that was not going to happen that day. Or any day.”

Some say they will never forget the sounds they heard in the seconds after the governor uttered those words. Some recall hearing mothers wailing and screams erupting from every corner of the firehouse. Others say they don’t remember hearing anything.

Michele Gay, whose 6-year-old daughter Josephine Gay was killed, ran outside into the cold air, gulping it into her lungs. She doesn’t remember hearing much of what the police were saying, she just remembers hearing the number 20.

“I knew as soon as they said that there were 20 children that that’s why I was still sitting there without my child,” she said. “That’s when it was pretty clear that that’s why our families were still there, and all the other families were at home with their loved ones.”

Alissa Parker, whose blonde-haired daughter Emilie was killed, said she felt like she was suffocating as she stood inside the firehouse, eventually crumbling to the ground, unable to stand.

“At one point I went into shock. I went pale. I laid down and they took my coat off,” she said. Crammed so tightly into one space, the parents were feeding off of each other’s fear and pain, making it all the more traumatizing.


Nicole Hockley, whose 6-year-old son Dylan Hockley died wrapped in his teacher’s arms, described the scene as “utter chaos.”

For Scarlett Lewis, the realization that her son Jesse Lewis had died hit her as a slow burn. When she first wrote his name on a piece of loose leaf paper that became a list of the missing, she said it hadn’t crossed her mind that he had been killed. She was confident that he’d led his classmates to hide out in the woods. But when an investigator asked her if her little boy had any identifying marks on his body, she knew it couldn’t be good.

Lewis said she first felt the magnitude of the pain when she watched her younger brother pull up to the firehouse and learn the news. It didn’t fully set in until that moment when she watched the brother she’d protected her whole life double over in gut-wrenching grief.

In each of those moments, the trajectories of their lives would change forever.

In the decade to come, many of those families would leave their lives as stay-at-home mothers, musicians, entrepreneurs, executive assistants and educators behind to become tireless advocates for the issues they believe led to their loved ones’ deaths. From legislative lobbying, social-emotional learning lessons and school safety reform, more than 20 non-profits would spring up in memory of those who were killed. Their work would go on to elevate and amplify national conversations about gun laws, create programs to teach children warning signs school shooters might display and save lives through suicide prevention.

Though their paths and approaches have differed widely, their goal has been common: to prevent other parents from feeling what they felt in that firehouse.


Speaking about that moment 10 years later Malloy, said it’s impossible to forget the pain he saw families feel in those moments.

He tried to draw on his experience as the mayor of Stamford on 9/11, grappling with another tragedy that never could have been planned for, when he made the decision to break state protocol and tell families their loved ones were dead before they had been officially identified. He didn’t want them to have to wait until morning to hear the inevitable news.

“I did what I felt needed to be done to treat these individuals as I would have wanted to be treated if I was in that situation,” he said.

Setting up systems to minimize the trauma of those initial chaotic moments after a crisis is one of the things that Gay and Parker have tried to do through their programming at the non-profit Safe and Sound Schools.

Immediately after the tragedy, they saw many parents stepping forward to focus on lobbying for gun laws, so they turned their attention to school safety. The organization now operates on a six-part multidisciplinary framework that spans emergency operations and management, mental and behavioral health, health and wellness, physical safety and security, culture climate and community, leadership and law and policy.

Gay, a former elementary school teacher, said she remembers looking around the firehouse and watching the reunification process as it unfolded both as a parent and an educator.


“That was rough, watching that and not being able to intervene and help the way that I wanted to because I was still looking for my child,” she said. “That really stuck with me as something that we needed to step in and help schools with.”

The process was chaotic, she said, not because of bad intentions or poor decision-making, but because the leaders of the school “were very much the plan” in the event of a tragedy. And many of them, including the principal, were dead.

Now, part of her work focuses on making sure that immediate response is streamlined for anyone who may have to experience something similar. She knows she can’t prevent bad things from happening, but hopes she can help lessen the pain.

“Everything we can do to mitigate that trauma, at least we are lightening that burden as much as we can,” she said. “It’s already too much to bear, but if you add chaos and confusion and emotion and hysteria and misinformation and miscommunication it just exponentially increases that difficulty of that recovery piece.”

Parker, who co-founded Safe and Sound Schools with Gay but has since stepped away, said that she remembers sitting with Gay shortly after the shooting and talking about what could have prevented their daughters from dying and what they could do to prevent something like this from happening in other families. She couldn’t sleep that night, she said, and by the time the sun rose the next day she had an idea for a non-profit that thrust she and Gay into a new normal of interviews and strategy meetings and trips to schools across the nation to meet with safety experts, law enforcement officers and educators alike.

Nicole Hockley said it didn’t take long for her to know she needed to work to create change in her son’s memory.


“When everything happened on 12/14, I said ‘I have got to do something.’ I am that sort of person who just has to do something and I don’t often think before I do,” she said.

When talk began of a new non-profit “it was an instant yes,” she said.

Ten years later, that yes has grown into Sandy Hook Promise, a national prevention program that she runs alongside Mark Barden, whose son Daniel Barden was killed in the shooting. Their work helps students and educators across the nation identify warning signs of potential school shooters, or of children experiencing thoughts of violence or suicide, and gives them the tools to talk about what they see and reach out for support and intervention.

When she started her advocacy, Hockley said the entire gun violence prevention movement was only focused on policy. They started there, too, with a desire to change the laws that allowed the firearms that killed their children to get into a shooter’s hands. But when legislation to pass universal background checks failed, they had to shift their focus.

“That was a real punch in the stomach but was also a reality check,” she said. “If everyone has been focusing on policy and it’s not working, something has to work.” And she was determined to find out what would.

“We knew we wanted to focus on gun safety but also mental health and wellness and community because at that point we saw those as kind of the three biggest breaking points,” she said.


They launched the first format of their “Know the Signs” program by handing out a tip sheet in the basement of a church in Columbus, Ohio. Those tips have turned into a national curriculum that, a decade later, has prevented several credible mass shooting threats and undoubtedly saved lives.

She considers the work they’re doing at Sandy Hook Promise to be one step on the path that many families impacted by Sandy Hook are collectively doing to change cultures and communities.

She said she and Barden’s approach, combined with that of Gay and Parker, are “two sides of an equation that are both critically important.”

“I made the conscious choice to focus on upstream violence prevention, what do you do so you never get to that point in the first place?” she said. “But you need both sides, you need to try to prevent as much as you can but then you need the side that, when an incident, unfortunately, does happen, helps you know what you do in that moment.”

Lewis said her work at the Choose Love movement is a part of that equation, too.

Her mission starts on the pathway to violence, the moments before someone starts showing warning signs of suicidal or homicidal behavior, by giving children and adults the tools they need to process their emotions, develop healthy relationships and not only survive but grow and thrive through difficult times.


And it was a note left by her son that set her on this path.

“Obviously the tragedy changed my life, but that set me on the trajectory I’m on today,” she said.

The ripple effect of the tragedy at Sandy Hook was felt far and wide, spurring the creation of organizations with national reach but Newtown roots, like the Newtown Action Alliance. Po Murray, who has four children who attended Newtown Public Schools, didn’t lose a child on Dec. 14, but her life has never been the same since the moment she learned that her neighbor was the gunman.

“You feel fortunate that you didn’t lose a child or your loved one on that day, but at the same time, you feel that you need to take some type of action to prevent this type of tragedy from ever happening again to your own children, your own family, or to any family across the country,” Murray said.

She and other members of the community started an all-volunteer activism group. Since they have held annual vigils remembering victims of gun violence, and have pushed Connecticut and Congress on gun reforms.

Heather Smith, of Plainfield, had never been to Sandy Hook before the tragedy. Now it is like her second home. She’s worked with Murray for nearly a decade now, volunteering as many as 10 hours per week to the mission.


A mother of two, Smith remembers the moment she heard the news reports of what had happened in Sandy Hook, about 100 miles away from where her daughter was in an elementary school classroom.

She drove to her daughter’s school to pick her up. When she arrived, she was asked to fill out a dismissal slip explaining why she was picking her up.

“I just wrote ‘Because I can,’” she said. “It’s all I could think to write.”

Close to Christmas, she remembers tears falling from her eyes as she drove her children home, her daughter’s voice piping up from the backseat to ask, “Mommy, are you crying about the kids again?”

Now a decade deep into her volunteer work with Newtown Action Alliance, she and her daughter, now 16, sat on a bus bound for Washington, D.C., last week to attend vigils, press conferences and lobbying sessions to continue to fight for change.

“I just knew I had to do something,” she said. And like so many who altered the course of their lives, their families and their careers on that heartbreaking day 10 years ago, she has.

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