THE teachers had herded the survivors to the volunteer firehouse near Sandy Hook Elementary School. Some were covered in blood.
Newtown pastor Robert Weiss recounted how the teachers held up signs with their class numbers on them as the children flooded in. They took class rolls and then released them into the arms of their terrified, relieved parents, while other parents watched and waited.
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Tragedy strikes US primary school
Young students remember being scared, the US President tears up, and many parents' worst nightmare is confirmed, as 20 children and several adults are shot dead at a Connecticut primary school.
''You could see them losing hope when the news came in and their children did not come back,'' Monsignor Weiss told Fairfax Media. ''They were broken.''
Twenty-year-old Adam Lanza, wearing combat gear armed with a semi-automatic rifle and pistols had just shot dead 20 children and seven adults - including his mother - in the nation's second-worst school shooting disaster, exceeded only by the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007.
The shooting has reignited the debate over tightening gun laws in America, with President Barack Obama addressing the nation and calling for ''meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics''.
Reciting a list of recent mass shootings, Mr Obama said, ''We have been through this too many times'', although he provided no specifics, and gun-control advocates immediately called on him to move swiftly to toughen firearms restrictions.
New York City's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, an outspoken proponent of stronger gun limits, said the President's words were not enough.
''President Obama rightly sent his heartfelt condolences to the families in Newtown,'' he said in a statement. ''But the country needs him to send a bill to Congress to fix this problem. Calling for 'meaningful action' is not enough. We need immediate action.''
Reached at her home in Florida, Adam Lanza's grandmother said she could not fathom the violence that took her daughter's life. ''I just can't cope with it right now,'' Dorothy Hanson said through tears. ''She was my daughter and a
beautiful girl and I loved her. I just can't make any more comments than that right now.''
The children Adam Lanza killed were between five and 10 years old. Lanza's body was found at the Connecticut school, taking the toll to 28.
During the killing rampage - which lasted only minutes - the children were gathered into corners of their classrooms as shots thundered around them. Some described hearing shots - there were thought to be about 100 rounds fired - but younger children did not have the words. One described the sounds as ''snaps''; another thought it was like someone kicking a door.
Police find 'good evidence' on shooting motive
Lieutenant Paul Vance says police have uncovered evidence that may help determine why a gunman killed 20 children in one of the worst shooting rampages in US history.
Monsignor Weiss had baptised many of the dead children and he taught them all religious studies.
Their families, friends and neighbours - more than 1000 - would gather as he held a memorial service for them in the St Rose of Lima church on the evening of the massacre.
''This was not the hand of God, this was the act of a man with issues,'' he said as members of his congregation wept and prayed.
Andrew Maingold, a 20-year-old local college student, was one of those huddling over a candle outside the packed church Saturday night as the temperature dipped below zero.
He had been woken by a volley of recorded calls to his mobile phone just after 9.30am. His younger brother and sister still went to local schools, and family members were being notified that they were locked down.
He was not worried at first. ''I went to school here and it was always getting locked down, locked down for a drill, locked down because someone was shooting at targets,'' he said.
Then he heard someone had been shot in the foot.
Another local, a former volunteer firefighter, heard the same thing, but then when he saw firefighters weeping on television he knew something terrible had happened.
''I said to my wife, 'firefighters don't cry because someone was shot in the foot'.''
Police, still piecing together the events, were reluctant to release information on Saturday, but news - not always correct - was spreading quickly.
Initially it was reported Adam's older brother, Ryan, 24, had committed the murders.
The scope of the horror became clearer in the early afternoon. Adam had shot his mother and then entered the school with weapons including a civilian version of a military rifle - similar to that used in the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado in July, this year - to kill her class.
Soon, President Obama ordered flags be lowered to half-mast. Then he tearfully addressed the nation.
''Our hearts are broken today,'' he said, saying the majority of those who died were children - ''beautiful, little kids between the ages of five and 10 years old''.
''They had their entire lives ahead of them - birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.''
It is not yet clear what the ''meaningful action'' Mr Obama referred to means, but it is the clearest indication that he is considering gun control he has given since he became President.
So powerful is the gun lobby neither candidate mentioned gun control during the election, and after the July shooting deaths of 12 people in Aurora, Mr Obama spoke only of addressing the broader causes of violence.
By Friday afternoon, however, the debate had erupted across the nation, with gun advocates declaring, again, gun policy should not be debated in the shadow of mass shootings, and those opposing them demanding change.
The prominent conservative commentator Ann Coulter tweeted that allowing more people to carry concealed weapons effectively cut the murder rate.
On Friday night, the village of Newtown looked festive. Christmas lights glowed on the houses and tidy lawns of its winding main street. The parking lot of the local Catholic Church appeared to glow from afar. It was only at closer range that it became clear the church was lit by the glare of television lights.
A few hundred metres down the hill, the road into Sandy Hook Elementary remained blocked by a row of police cars, their emergency lights flashing red and blue.
Monsignor Weiss kept the church open overnight, with parishioners free to come and go under the wooden sign above the door that says, ''Love one another.''