THE gunfire ended; now it was so quiet they could hear the broken glass and bullet casings scraping under their boots. The smell of gunpowder filled the air. The officers turned down their radios; they did not want to give away their positions if there was still a gunman present.
They found the two women first, their bodies lying on the lobby floor. Now they knew it was real. But nothing, no amount of training, could prepare them for what they found next, inside those two classrooms.
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''One look, and your life was absolutely changed,'' said Michael McGowan, one of the first police officers to arrive at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, as a gunman, in the space of minutes, killed 20 first-graders and six adults.
McGowan was among seven Newtown officers who recently sat down to share their accounts of that day.
The stories also reveal the deep stress that lingers for officers who, until December 14, had focused their energies on maintaining order in a low-crime corner of suburbia. Some can barely sleep. Little things can set off tears: a television show, a child's laughter, even the piles of gifts the police department received from across the country.
One detective, who was driving with his wife and two sons, passed a roadside memorial on Route 25 two weeks after the shooting and began sobbing uncontrollably.
''I just lost it right there, I couldn't even drive,'' Jason Frank said.
Officer William Chapman was in the Newtown police station along with McGowan and others when the first reports of shots and breaking glass came in early on the day of the massacre. The school was more than three kilometres away. They travelled up Route 25, then right onto Church Hill Road. ''We drove as fast as we've ever driven,'' McGowan said.
They made it in less than three minutes, arriving in the parking lot while gunfire could still be heard.
Chapman and Scott Smith made their way to the front entrance.
It was there, only minutes earlier, that a rail-thin 20-year-old named Adam Lanza, armed with a .223 Bushmaster semiautomatic carbine, two semi-automatic pistols and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, had blasted his way through the glass.
Leonard Penna, a school resource officer who had raced to the scene from his office at the Newtown Middle School, entered the school with Sergeant Aaron Bahamonde and Lieutenant Christopher Vanghele, through a side door that leads to the boiler room.
McGowan and two other officers entered through a locked rear door. One of them knocked out the glass with his rifle butt so the rest of the officers could get in.
The officers went from room to room, urgently hunting for the killer before he could do more harm.
As Chapman and Smith approached the second classroom in the hallway on their left, they spotted a rifle on the floor. Inside they found the gunman, Lanza, dead by his own hand, along with the bodies of several children and other adults.
The officers searched the room for any other gunmen, then began searching for signs of life among the children.
One little girl had a pulse and was breathing. Chapman cradled her in his arms and ran with her to an ambulance outside.
Chapman, a parent himself, tried to comfort her. ''You're safe now; your parents love you,'' he recalled saying.
She did not survive.
Soon, with state troopers coming in, the officers began to evacuate the children who were still behind locked doors. But many of the teachers, seeking to protect their students and following their own training, refused to open up.
''We're kicking the doors, yelling 'Police! Police!''' McGowan said. ''We were ripping our badges off and putting them up to the window.''
Frank, who had been off duty and rushed to the scene so quickly that he had to borrow a gun from a colleague once he arrived, remembers ripping the handle off one of the doors, ''just trying to get through''.
As the children emerged, the officers tried to reassure them.
''Everything is fine now,'' they said, even as they stayed alert for a possible second gunman. ''Everybody hold hands, close your eyes,'' they told the children.
NEW YORK TIMES