The exterior of the Newtown Volunteer Ambulance Corps station. The corps'… (Dan Zak/The Washington…)
The first 911 call arrived at 9:35 a.m. in the emergency communications center at the Newtown Police Department on Main Street.
Gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Shots fired.
The two dispatchers on duty initiated the department’s active-shooter policy. Every officer, off duty and on patrol, was notified via radio. The station emptied out.
It’s a 2.3-mile drive from the Newtown station to Sandy Hook Elementary School: A left, a right and another right. The first on the scene were nine Newtown officers, divided into three teams of three, including the police chief. They were the first, after the shooter, to force their way into the school, via the front lobby and the rear door.
Inside: silence. The air smelled like the department’s firing range: spent gunpowder.
By that time, 1,000 feet down the road from the school, William Halstead, the chief of Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire and Rescue, knew something was wrong. From his desk, he had heard the sirens as the first squad cars passed — a typical sound for this stretch of Route 6, which connects Newtown’s Main Street with Interstate 84 — but he thought nothing of it until the noise began to compound.
More sirens, as Connecticut State Police and other Newtown officers zoomed by.
More sirens, as ambulances arrived from the Newtown Volunteer Ambulance Corps and Danbury Hospital.
And then the fire chief and four others — including his daughter, the station’s captain of emergency medical services, and a firefighter whose son attended Sandy Hook — hopped in a rescue truck for the short ride up the hill. A small army of volunteer first responders — two dozen EMTs from Newtown’s ambulance corps alone — flocked to the scene. Everyone’s pagers and radios had alerted them to the situation, and neighbors raced to help neighbors.
Dozens of units from several jurisdictions would follow, barreling up Dickinson Drive toward the school, where the initial report indicated an active threat and multiple casualties. But the reality that greeted most first responders was confounding: There were people to evacuate but none to save.
Triage tarps were laid out in the parking lot anyway.
EMTs and firefighters stood like sentinels outside the school, waiting to be useful, even after a paramedic exited the building and told Chief Halstead that everybody who was still inside would not be coming out.
Newtown, for a first responder, is a motor vehicle accident on one of the area’s 270 miles of roads. Newtown is a heart attack at one of its senior-citizen communities. It’s an episode of domestic abuse or petty larceny. It’s brush fires and downed wires and abdominal pain. Occasionally, it’s a car wreck that requires extrications or a house fire with a couple of victims. It is not a rifle-powered massacre.
“You know, it was horrific . . .”
This is Newtown’s chief of police, Michael Kehoe, two weeks after the shooting at Sandy Hook.
“. . . absolutely horrific . . .”
He’s been a police officer in town for 341/2 years, chief since 2001. He was one of the first nine officers into the school on Dec. 14.
“. . . to believe that somebody would do that . . .”
Kehoe sat at his desk Friday, calm and cordial and somber, a green-and-white ribbon pinned by a tiny gold angel to his crisp white dress shirt. His team was trained and ready for an active-shooter scenario, but there hadn’t been one in Newtown in decades — perhaps not since 1975, when the proprietor of the Sandy Hook Hotel shot and killed two Hell’s Angels in an act that was deemed self-defense. Before Dec. 14, the last local crime to draw continuous national news coverage was an airline pilot’s murder of his wife; he disposed of her body via a wood chipper near Lake Zoar in 1986, and the trial lasted for weeks.
Those incidents pale in comparison to what happened two weeks ago, Kehoe said. Since then, his department has been consumed by the two ghastly crime scenes (the first being that of the shooter’s mother), by attempts at defrauding or violating the privacy of the victims’ families by a battery of media requests and intrusions that have encouraged a no-comment policy for now. Connecticut State Police officials aren’t talking about the event, and last week, a judge in Danbury Superior Court extended the seal on five related search warrants for another 90 days as the investigation continues.
Kehoe will speak only broadly about Dec. 14 and its effects on his team.
“I think there’s a general concern about law enforcement officers, EMS, firefighters,” Kehoe said. “We all see horrific things in our daily jobs. . . . Certainly, at all times we are really concerned about first responders who saw unimaginable things that day. . . . We tell officers, ‘Feel free to see the clinician of your choice and get the help you need for you and your families.’ ”