NEWTOWN, Conn.– The firehouse is still there, just as it was on the day of the shooting, except for the 26 bronze stars adorning its roof: one for each victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.
The school is still there too, a short walk up the road, but not for long. This week, gates guarding one of the nation’s most notorious crime scenes quietly swung open to heavy machinery and construction trucks as work began to demolish the campus where 20 first-graders and six school employees died Dec. 14.
Rarely has a major tear-down been conducted in such a hushed manner, but rarely has a project been steeped in such tragedy and debated in the midst of a town in mourning, in full view of those hit hardest. Newtown, though, is moving forward, say residents and leaders, who point to the exhaustive meetings that decided the school’s fate – just five months after the shooting – as proof of the town’s determination.
The town has announced that it will forgo official ceremonies marking the massacre’s first anniversary; it asked for a halt to gifts that for months poured in, from individuals as well as organizations; and it tackled the practical matter of the school’s future before considering whether to erect a permanent memorial. A panel to deal with that issue was not named until this month.
“I think this is really one of the ways in which our community does go forward, in that we are all in this together,” Newtown’s highest elected official, Patricia Llodra, said on May 15 after the 28-member Sandy Hook School Task Force voted unanimously to demolish the school and build a new one on the same spot. “We’ve ended up in a place that is the best we could do, under horrible circumstances.”
In an Oct. 5 referendum, the town voted to fund the project with a $49-million state grant. “Yes” votes were 4,504; “no” votes totaled 558.
If all goes according to plan, the demolition will be finished well before the December shooting anniversary. The work site will be shielded from public view. Every piece of metal, glass, brick and concrete from the low-slung buildings, the playground, the jungle gym and the driveway will be pulverized to prevent chunks of the tragedy from becoming souvenirs. The new school’s entrance will be relocated to save people from having to pass the firehouse where anguished parents waited hours before learning their children were dead.
Dan Cruson, the town historian who works from an office in the historic Edmond Town Hall on Main Street, said reopening Sandy Hook was never a viable option.
“First of all, there’s the magnitude of the tragedy,” Cruson said. “I don’t mean to one-up Columbine, but the number of victims and their ages here made it different. And there’s the mere fact that getting to the school driveway means passing the firehouse, which was the scene of so much anguish.”
The site will always carry a stigma because of what occurred there, Cruson said. “With time, memories will become less raw, and with future generations, the hope is that this will become something in a history book,” he said. “But it’s a crime scene.”
The new school is expected to open by December 2016. In the meantime, students are attending classes in a neighboring town.