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As hundreds stand outside St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, which was filled to capacity, a couple embrace during a healing service held in for victims of an elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. A gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, killing 26 people, including 20 children.

This is a town so small that word of the terror spread by phone, from relative to neighbour to friend.

Maureen Kerins, a nurse, got a call Friday morning from her sister saying there had been a shooting at the local elementary school. She rushed down, thinking she might be able to help.

She shepherded children, crying and frightened, to a nearby firehouse. But the attack was so deadly that there were no groups of wounded to treat.

"Nobody came out," she said, her eyes still rimmed with red.

"We never thought it would happen here," said the mother of five, walking home with two of her sons along a tree-lined country road. This kind of mass killing "always seemed so far away – it was in Colorado, or it was in Virginia. I don't know how these parents will ever recover – or this town, for that matter."

Later that evening, as the shock began to give way to grief, she joined hundreds of others at a local church, packed to overflowing. "Just to be together," Ms. Kerins said, struggling for composure. "To pray for those who have lost."

In Newtown and all across the nation, Americans mourned a massacre stunning in its brutality and in the utter vulnerability of most of its victims.

"We've endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years," President Barack Obama said in an emotional statement where he paused to wipe his eyes.

The horror was visited on Sandy Hook, a hamlet of almost picture-book quaintness less than two hours from New York City – a place where families settle to raise children, where a white clapboard church sits in the centre of town, together with a signboard advertising the sale of Christmas trees and wreaths at the local firehouse.

It was at that firehouse where parents came face to face with the unimaginable. Robert Weiss, the priest at St. Rose of Lima, a local Catholic church, arrived Friday morning to offer support.

There the inconceivable collided with reminders of daily life. One bereaved mother, Father Weiss said, was interrupted by an alert popping up on her phone: time to take her son to Cub Scouts. One little boy whose sister was killed realized he wouldn't have anybody to play with, Father Weiss said.

"There are no words at a time like this, it's really just being present," he said, his eyes filling with tears. He believes that seven or eight of the children killed were part of his congregation.

"This is a very family-oriented area," he said. "That's why people move here, because their children are going to be safe."

Nearby, knots of people walked quickly, arm in arm, weeping, as helicopters hovered high overhead. On the main road, two signs reading "God Bless the Families" were propped on a lawn, the smell of the spray paint still fresh.

Past the firehouse sat the wooded hills that are home to the families who send their children to Sandy Hook Elementary. The houses are large, set back from the road, decorated with American flags and Christmas wreaths, with basketball nets on top of garages and swing sets in the backyards.

One man who declined to be identified by name pulled up in a sport-utility vehicle on a mission from his wife – to check if a neighbour's family was all right. His daughter, a first-grader at the school, had stayed home on Friday with the flu.

From what he could gather from friends and neighbours, he said, the victims included five or six girls who had been in his daughter's kindergarten class. So far all he has said to her was that there was a shooting and many people were hurt. He asked, with a note of despair: "How am I going to tell her?"

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