Updated Saturday, December 15, 2012 at 11:29 AM
A 20-year-old man wearing combat gear and armed with pistols killed 26 people — 20 of them children — in an attack Friday in an elementary school in Connecticut. Witnesses described a horrific scene as the gunman, with brutal efficiency, chose his victims in two specific classrooms while other students dived under desks and hid in closets.
Hundreds of terrified parents gathered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, about 65 miles north of New York City, after news of the shootings spread. Many arrived as their sobbing children were led out, each with a hand on the shoulder of the child in front. But by that time, all the victims were shot and most were dead, as was the gunman, identified as Adam Lanza, who committed suicide. The slain children were said to be from 5 to 10 years old.
A 28th person, found dead in a house in the town, was also believed to have been shot by Lanza. That victim, one law-enforcement official said, was Lanza's mother, Nancy Lanza, 52, who worked at the school. She apparently owned the guns he used; she legally owned five weapons.
The school principal had buzzed Adam Lanza in because she recognized him as the son of a colleague. Moments later, she was shot dead when she went to investigate the sound of gunshots. The school psychologist was also among those who died.
The rampage was the nation's second-deadliest school shooting, exceeded only by the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, in which a gunman killed 32 people and then himself.
Law-enforcement officials said Lanza had grown up in Newtown, and he was remembered by high-school classmates as smart, introverted and nervous. Several said they believed he had Asperger syndrome.
The gunman was accurate. A spokesman for the state police said that only one person had been injured at the school. All the others hit by the barrage of bullets died, suggesting they were shot at point-blank range.
Some who were there said the shooting occurred during morning announcements, and the initial shots could be heard over the school's public-address system. The bodies of those killed were still in the school late Friday.
Law-enforcement officials offered no hint of what motivated Lanza. They were trying to determine if he suffered from a personality disorder. One official said investigators were asking why — if Lanza's rage was directed toward his mother, as appeared to be the case — he had opened fire on other people's children.
FBI agents interviewed his brother, Ryan Lanza, in Hoboken, N.J.; his father, Peter Lanza, who was divorced from Nancy Lanza, was also expected to be questioned, one official said.
Newtown, a postcard-perfect New England town where everyone seems to know everyone else and where there had lately been holiday tree lightings with apple cider and hot chocolate, was plunged into mourning. Stunned residents attended four memorial services in the town Friday evening as detectives continued the search for clues.
Maureen Kerins, a hospital nurse who lives near the school, learned of the shooting from television and hurried to the scene to see if she could help.
"I stood outside waiting to go in, but a police officer came out and said they didn't need any nurses, so I knew it wasn't good," Kerins said.
On Friday, faces told the story outside the school. There were the faces of children who were crying as they were led out in a line. There were the faces of three women who emerged with their arms around one another, as if they were protecting the one in the middle. There were the relieved-looking faces of a couple and a little girl in a light blue jacket, riding high on her father's shoulders.
The shootings set off a tide of anguish nationwide. In Illinois and Georgia, flags were lowered to half-staff in memory of the victims. At the White House, President Obama struggled to read a statement in the White House briefing room. More than once, he dabbed his eyes.
"Our hearts are broken," Obama said, adding that his first reaction was not as a president but as a parent. "I know there is not a parent in America who does not feel the same overwhelming grief that I do."
He called the victims "beautiful little kids."
He paused for several seconds to keep his composure as he teared up and wiped an eye. Nearby, two aides cried and held hands as they listened to Obama.
"They had their entire lives ahead of them — birthdays, graduations, wedding, kids of their own," Obama continued. "Among the fallen were also teachers, men and women who devoted their lives to helping our children."
He called for "meaningful action" to stop such shootings, but he did not spell out details. In his nearly four years in office, he has not pressed for expanded gun control. But he did allude Friday to a desire for politicians to put aside their differences and deal with ways to prevent future shootings.
Gov. Dannel Malloy of Connecticut, who went to Newtown, said: "Evil visited this community today."
Lt. J. Paul Vance, a spokesman for the Connecticut State Police, described "a very horrific and difficult scene" at the school, a one-story building that had 700 students in kindergarten through fourth grade. It had a security protocol that called for doors to be locked during the school day and for visitors to be checked on a video monitor inside.
Vance said the Newtown police had called for help from nearby police departments and had immediately begun a manhunt, checking "every nook and cranny and every room."
Officers were seen kicking in doors as they worked their way through the school.
Vance said the students who died had been in two classrooms in one section of the school. Others said that as the horror unfolded, students and teachers tried to hide in places the gunman would not think to look. Teachers locked the doors, turned off lights and closed the blinds. Some ordered students to climb under their desks. The teachers did not explain what was going on, but they did not have to. Everyone could hear the gunfire.
Yvonne Cech, a school librarian, said she spent 45 minutes locked in a closet with two library clerks, a library catalog assistant and 18 fourth-graders.
"The SWAT team escorted us out," she said, and then the children were reunited with their parents.
Vance said 18 youngsters were pronounced dead at the school and two others were taken to a hospital, where they were declared dead. All the adults who were killed at the school were pronounced dead there.
Law-enforcement officials said the weapons used by the gunman were a Sig Sauer and a Glock, both handguns. The police also found a Bushmaster .223 M4 carbine in the car.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.
MELANIE STENGEL / AP
A young girl cries after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. Some students were reunited with their parents at a nearby fire station after hiding inside the school from the gunman.
CHARLES KRUPA / AP
Hundreds attend a healing service Friday at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Newtown, Conn.