Residents of Casper, Wyo., hold candles Friday evening during a vigil for the 27 victims of the Newtown, Conn.
(Photo: Alan Rogers, AP)
By Gary Stoller and Kristin Stoller, USA TODAY
NEWTOWN, Conn. - Thousands of townspeople - many in tears - gathered together at a candlelight vigil on a local soccer field Friday night to honor and remember the 27 victims in last week's elementary school massacre.
A bell sounded after each victim's name was solemnly read, as residents clutched teddy bears and held candles that flickered on a cold, damp night.
Police estimate that more than 2,000 came to the event. Artificial trees decorated with paper angels stood near a stage at the front of the field - each angel wearing a lei shipped on ice from Hawaii, said vigil organizer Sarah Ferris, 20.
Newtown's Superintendent of Schools Janet Robinson said that the shooting "shattered" the Newtown community's "sense of safety."
Robinson said she wondered how such a tragedy could occur in Newtown, and praised the many workers who came forward in the past week to establish a new school in Monroe, Conn., for students in the tragedy.
"Out of the ashes of an indescribable event, I have seen the spirit of Newtown," Robinson said.
Pat Llodra, Newtown's first selectman, said she had confidence that her community would lift the grief from the shoulders of those affected.
"The acts of heroism, the courage, the love, the tenderness - those acts exhibited by our teachers, administrators and first responders - are greater by far than the desperate act of a confused young man with violence in his heart," Llodra said.
She said the town would not be broken and that she hoped a greater good would come out of the tragedy.
David Paine presented the town with a digital sympathy card posted on Causes.com, which garnered more than 2 million signatures from 140 countries, 5,140 towns and 32 languages.
Sheri Venticinque-Presti, a Newtown resident since 2004, attended the vigil with her 16-year-old daughter, a student at Newtown High School.
Venticinque-Presti says the Sandy Hook tragedy has made her want to know neighbors she now doesn't know. "Some good" has to come out of "something so tragic," she says.
Sahana and Joy Gupta, who moved from Newtown to Riverdale, N.Y., in October, returned to their former town to pay tribute to those killed in the school shooting. The couple said they believe the tragedy may be "the tipping point" that will lead to political change to stop the violence throughout the country.
Though he said he didn't know anyone directly involved in the shooting, Alex Gisch, of Sudbury, Mass., said he volunteered to help out at the vigil because he was affected by the killings.
"I'm actually having a hard time processing it," he said. "It's hard to describe the emotions behind it."
Gisch, a junior at Edgewood College, said he loaded up a truck with stuffed animals and helped make the luminaria set up around the soccer field's perimeter.
A group of singers huddled on the side of the stage, and opened and closed the vigil with Christmas songs. A bagpiper played "Amazing Grace" as the crowd sang along.
Ferris, whose family owns the Ferris Acres Creamery, an ice cream shop popular with locals, said she organized the vigil because the town needed something to come together.
Town officials, she said, are so busy with events following the tragedy and didn't have enough manpower to get such an event together.