Inside Sandy Hook School, Wrenching Tales Of Heroism

Teacher Kaitlin Roig hid her first-grade class in a closet during the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. (Reuters)

Natalie Hammond thought it might have been the sound of pipes banging when the furnace kicks in.

Other teachers figured a janitor had knocked over a toolbox, or perhaps a stack of metal folding chairs had slipped off a cart, or maybe it was just the clang of the risers being set up for choir practice.

As clusters of tiny students drew gingerbread men and sang songs and twisted into yoga poses inside the classrooms of Sandy Hook Elementary School 380 days ago, few could comprehend the true source of that terrible noise echoing down the long hallways.

But as the bursts of gunfire continued, and the horrific reality came into unmistakable focus, a day of unfathomable grief and violence also became a day of quiet valor, from the teacher who kept a gunshot wound to her foot a secret so as not to frighten her students, to the Newtown police officer who sprinted toward an ambulance, cradling a gravely wounded girl in his arms and whispering "Come on, sweetie. Come on, sweetie" despite the terrible odds against her.

Friday's release of hundreds of police reports spanning thousands of pages offers the clearest picture yet of a terrifying rampage that shook the nation's psyche, sparking difficult debates coast-to-coast over guns and mental health care and school security.

But the reports are also a gripping reminder that the Dec. 14, 2012, attack is a decidedly local and human story as well, with wrenching tales of horror and heroism inside the sprawling schoolhouse down Dickinson Drive.

It began with the first shots, as Adam Lanza blasted out the glass doors at the front of the school, startling Principal Dawn Hochsprung, school psychologist Mary Sherlach and others who had just settled in for a nearby meeting with a parent.

It is well known that both women ran toward the sound, and were the first to be fatally wounded in the school. But they weren't alone in racing toward danger. Lead teacher Natalie Hammond was 10 or 15 feet behind Hochsprung and Sherlach as all three sprinted out of the meeting. When Lanza leveled his rifle at the women and fired, Hammond was struck in the left hand and left thigh and fell to the hallway floor. She lay motionless and saw Lanza standing over her colleagues and then moving on toward the classrooms. She crawled back into the meeting room, then lay by the doorway, using her right hand to hold the door closed as she heard footsteps and the sound of Lanza swapping out the magazines on his Bushmaster rifle.

With a second round of shots, teachers and others in the school began to fathom the unfathomable, and the police files hold numerous reports of quick thinking and quick action by staff.

School custodian Rick Thorne dialed 911 on his cellphone, then ran down unsecured hallways, warning teachers. Some were already aware of the danger and instantly applied lockdown protocols — locking doors, closing blinds, shutting lights, papering windows. They huddled students into corners, hid them under tables and bookcases, or hustled them into closets and bathrooms.

Kaitlin Roig crammed so many first-graders into her small bathroom that at one point six kids were standing on the toilet seat as she tried to figure out how to fit everyone in. When police liberated her room, Newtown Lt. Christopher Vanghele told her she had saved the children's lives.

Teachers, terrified in their own right as shots rang out by the dozens, devised schemes to calm their students, softly reading stories and playing word games and singing songs as they nervously gauged the shooter's proximity by the louder and softer sound of the gunfire.

Meanwhile, state and local police sped toward the school with the first chaotic reports of a possible shooter. There has been criticism of the decision to delay entering the school amid confusion over the number of gunmen, but it is clear that the first officers to breach the building did so with the belief that one or more armed suspects might be in the school, and might be looking to ambush police.

Inside, they moved in teams of three and four, guns drawn, sweeping rooms in a search for victims and survivors, still unaware of the horror that lay beyond the doors of two of the classrooms. It was smoky, with the acrid smell of gunpowder, and near the shooting scenes, officers had to step over spent shells that littered the floors.

The officers relied on training for the tactical rules of dealing with an active shooter. But nothing prepared them for the scenes inside classrooms 8 and 10.

Newtown Officer William Chapman knew that at least two adults had been killed at the school, but as he went from room to room, he initially found only empty spaces or groups of students and staff, frightened but unharmed. He approached Victoria Soto's classroom, expecting to find more of the same.

Chapman saw the Glock pistol first, and then Lanza's body, laying where he had shot himself. Chapman stepped inside, quickly scanning the room for a possible second shooter.

And then, he wrote, "my heart broke."

"I walked around the room saying to myself, 'no, no, no,'" Chapman wrote in his report.

The heartache only grew as he moved to the next room, where Lauren Rousseau was working as a substitute teacher. Like Roig, Rousseau had tried to protect her children by hiding them in the bathroom.