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Joe Dryer, 42, is a resident of Newtown and his son attends Sandy Hook Elementary school but was home sick the day of the shooting that killed 26 people.Neville Elder/The Globe and Mail

The residents of this small, picture-perfect community awoke Saturday to a clear winter morning, frost on the ground, and knew that nothing would ever be the same.

They tried to stick to routines – breakfasts with the family, walks in the hills – but the enormity of the tragedy was everywhere.

Joe Dryer took his golden retriever out for a stroll, as usual. Then his cell phone rang. He listened for a moment. "Thank god," he gasped.

"Thank god."

His son's kindergarten teacher, whom he feared dead, was alive.

"It's a relief every time you hear that this child is alright, or this teacher is okay," he said.

Mr. Dryer's son was home from school the day of the massacre due to a lingering illness. His older daughter attends the local high school, where she spent three hours locked in a darkened classroom as a security precaution.

Back home, his son was eating breakfast and his daughter was sleeping in. This coming Monday morning, Mr. Dryer said, he was supposed to meet with Dawn Hochsprung, the school's principal, to talk about his son's absence from school. Ms. Hochsprung was killed in the shootings.

He shook his head, grappling with a way to talk about what happened here. "There's no book for this."

In the face of unspeakable grief, the people of Newtown sought ways to come together. At Reed Intermediate School, counsellors were on hand to staff an impromptu crisis centre. The parking lot was totally full.

Nearby, a simple sign was propped on a tree overlooking a bucolic meadow and small lake. It read, in red capital letters, "Pray."

Their idyllic town had changed in other ways too. Treadwell Park, an expanse of soccer and lacrosse fields, was transformed into a media staging centre, complete with a forest of more than thirty satellite trucks broadcasting to the world.

As authorities prepared to release the official list of the names of victims, they cautioned the media not to approach devastated families, noting that state troopers had been posted at each home.

In the sloping hills above the elementary school, a state police cruiser sat at the bottom of the lane that led to the home of Catherine Hubbard, a six-year old killed in the attack. Nearby homes were festooned with Christmas decorations, including a large sleigh and reindeer on the lawn.

Jenny and Leo Ficks, who live down the road, said the Hubbard family was new to the neighbourhood, moving there earlier this year. They tried to fathom their unfathomable grief, failing to find words.

"Are they thinking, 'If only we hadn't moved?'" asked Mr. Ficks, an orchestra teacher whose two daughters, now in their teens, both attended Sandy Hook Elementary. "You can't even imagine."