NEWTOWN, Connecticut: Gene Rosen stopped at his home near Sandy Hook School to feed two cats in his care when he heard gunshots ring out last Friday.
At first he discounted the repetitive shots as fireworks, then he saw six children sitting in a circle on his front lawn.
"They were sitting very sweetly in a circle next to the lantern," Rosen recalled, his own eyes full of tears as he recounted the events of the morning that sent shock waves throughout the nation, and the world. "But as I approached I realised they were crying, they were out of breath, their faces were filled with terror."
Rosen, a retired psychiatrist, didn't realise at the time that the six first-grade students had escaped the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook School that took the lives of 20 of their classmates and six adults.
He invited the children and a bus driver who accompanied them into his home. They followed quietly up the short hill to his small yellow 18th century house with green shutters — without objection.
It was when the children were settled inside that the reality of what had happened began to set in.
Rosen grabbed a handful of his grandchildren's stuffed toys and gave them to the children, who he said appeared to be comforted by the furry friends. One, Rosen said, began to spell her name out on a stuffed frog that had the alphabet on its belly.
They settled in the small living room with wide plank floors, two windows looking out at the driveway and a large hearth filled with family photos and a white tile hung with care many years ago that included a dragonfly and a single word, "Peace".
Two of the boys sat on a rug in front of the couch, Rosen said, and suddenly they began to talk.
"Something changed," Rosen said. "One boy started saying loudly, 'We can't go back to the school, we can't go back to the school, our teacher is gone. Mrs Soto is gone.' "
The other boy joined in. "He had a little gun," Rosen recalled the boy saying, "and a big gun."
A girl also began talking, she said she saw blood coming from Ms Soto's mouth, then the girl fell to the floor, Rosen said, and the narrative stopped.
"He had a little gun,’’ Rosen recalled the boy saying. ’’And a big gun.’’
It was only after Rosen heard on the news later that evening that first-grade teacher Vicky Soto had been killed, that he knew the story the children told was true.
Rosen began to cry.
"I knew they had witnessed the death of their teacher," he said. "The children were so strong, so strong and so sweet."
After reuniting the children with their parents, the group walked to the firehouse next door where students were being accounted for. The students, he said, filed into an empty bay.
"I know there was a room full of parents in that firehouse whose children had perished," Rosen said. "Someone had to tell them they were gone."
When he returned home, a weary Rosen sat on the couch, when a knock came on the front door.
"There was a woman," he said. "Her face was frozen in fear. She heard there were six children in the home and was hoping her son was among them."
The boy was among the 20 who were killed.
"I wanted to say he was here," Rosen said as he held his face in his hands and began to sob. "I wanted to say he was here. I saw that boy's funeral pass my house the other day. I just want to put my arms around that woman and hug her."
While Rosen worked at the now closed Fairfield Hills hospital, he said it was the time he spent with his two grandchildren that prepared him for that horrible day.
"These are my teachers," he said, pulling picture of the two children from the mantel. "They gave me the strength to be with these children."
After days of reflecting on the tragedy, Rosen said the strength and innocence of the children continues to stand out.
"I want the world to know that the goodness of these children, their strength and their innocence, can lead us to a civil discourse," he said. "They know the answers, they know the truth."
As Sandy Hook begins to heal, Rosen said he hoped that someday he could have a reunion with the children, and take them sledding on the hill in his backyard where had done the same with his grandchildren on snowy winter afternoons.
"They are just so sweet and so innocent," he said. "These children are always in my prayers. I want to meet them in the light, because we came together in the darkness."
The New York Times