Bardens Work To Keep Daniel's Compassion Alive

A family photo of Daniel Barden, right, one of the 20 children killed in the Sandy Hook School tragedy, with his brother James and sister Natalie. (Courtesy the Barden Family)

"And then we got the news that there had been a report of a shooting at Sandy Hook School," Mark said. "And I ran out the door."

Mark regularly volunteered at Sandy Hook and knew it as a "quaint, bucolic, little down-a-country-road school." But on Dec. 14 it was a chaotic, overwhelming scene, with scores of police cars and ambulances and SWAT teams and helicopters whirring above a growing number of crying students and anxious mothers and fathers.

Parents had been directed to a firehouse near the school to collect their children, and as Mark moved through the crowd looking for Daniel, rumors swirled that Principal Dawn Hochsprung had been shot.

"Man, this is serious," he thought to himself and began trying to figure out how he would explain to Daniel what had happened.

But where was Daniel?

Officials asked parents who had not been reunited with their children to gather in one room, cut off from the joyous reunions outside the firehouse. James, the oldest son, borrowed a friend's cellphone and sent a text to his father. "Dad, we're in lockdown," he wrote. "Is Daniel OK?"

Jackie works 40 minutes away at a school in Pawling, N.Y. But she had arrived by the time a state trooper came into the room and broke the devastating news that 20 children had been killed.

But not Daniel, the Bardens told themselves, unwilling and unable to consider the alternative.

Earlier, the police had asked the relatives still missing someone to sign in, so Jackie returned to the sheet and counted the names. Eighteen. Nineteen. Twenty. Twenty-one. Twenty-two. Twenty-three. Twenty-four.

She forced herself to be optimistic. Twenty victims. But 24 families in the room. Four children were missing but safe, she concluded.

"Daniel's still OK," she told herself. "He's still OK."

More rumors bubbled up that two children had been taken to the hospital, and the Bardens crafted new narratives of a miraculous reunion.

"We still had hope," Jackie said. "We still were thinking it's OK. He has to be the one."

But there were no miracles for any of the panicked relatives in the room. Jackie didn't realize it at the time, but the four extra names on the sign-in sheet were connected to the four teachers killed in the classrooms.

It was Gov. Dannel P. Malloy who finally delivered the grim news, telling those in the room that there were no more survivors.

A neighbor had collected James and Natalie earlier in the day and brought them to her house. On any other Friday, the two families would be gathering for their standard end-of-the-week pizza night, and James and Natalie waited for their parents and Daniel to show up. When Mark and Jackie arrived alone, the kids knew something was horribly wrong.

Taming Time

At first, there was only numbness, and as the fog lifted and the grief took hold, the Bardens were buoyed by relatives — dozens were camped out at the house — and then by each other.

"We were alternating our meltdowns," Mark said. "So I could hold Jackie when she was falling apart and she could hold me when I was falling apart."

Neighbors — the whole town, really — chipped in, setting up a meal train and emailing constant offers of assistance. And condolences came in from around the world: The U.K. France. Germany. Afghanistan.