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Procession of funerals continues for Connecticut shooting victims

Students and educators who were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School are mourned at services in the Newtown area. Visitors include New York firefighters and singer Paul Simon.

December 19, 2012|By Shashank Bengali and Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times
  • Mourners embrace at a wake for Sandy Hook Elementary School Principal Dawn Hochsprung in Woodbury, Conn.
Mourners embrace at a wake for Sandy Hook Elementary School Principal Dawn… (Charles Krupa, Associated…)

NEWTOWN, Conn. — A 7-year-old who dreamed of being a fireman. A heroic teacher who loved flamingoes. A beloved principal whose last act was trying to save the children in her care.

The grim procession of memorial services continued Wednesday as Newtown and surrounding communities bade tearful farewell to more victims of last week's shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which left 20 students and six school staffers dead.

First-grade teacher Victoria Leigh Soto received a hero's funeral at the Lordship Community Church in Stratford, Conn., complete with a police honor guard — officers in full dress uniforms and white gloves, marching in precise formation. Men in black suits carried her flower-laden casket up the small flight of steps leading into the church.

Singer Paul Simon came too and sang "The Sound of Silence," attendees said.

Soto, a blue-eyed 27-year-old who was in her third year teaching at the school, died Friday morning trying to protect her students from Adam Lanza, 20, who had shot his way into Sandy Hook and found her in her classroom. She had hidden her students in the closet. Some of them died.

The intensity of the grief could be counted in the number of metal chairs that were set up outside the church for the overflow crowd, dressed in black accented with green ribbons. Soto also loved flamingoes, and after the funeral, Carlee, her sister, tweeted a photo of a pink flamingo wearing a green ribbon and added, "Yes Vicki, there are flamingoes in heaven."

At an interfaith service in Newtown on Sunday, President Obama invoked Soto's name and said that she and her fellow teachers had "responded as we all hope we might respond in such terrifying circumstances — with courage and with love, giving their lives to protect the children in their care."

With more memorial services scheduled for the remainder of the week, and a grief-filled Christmas to follow, the Sandy Hook community faces the prospect of a long mourning period. The school's students aren't expected to return to classes until next month, while workers and volunteers prepare a mothballed school facility in nearby Monroe to receive the students.

As the congregation grieved for Soto, mourners packed St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Newtown, 40 minutes north, to pay their respects to first-grader Daniel Barden.

The 7-year-old, frozen in time with a gap-toothed smile in a photo distributed by his family, had idolized his father's cousins — New York City firemen. Dozens of firefighters from New York City, upstate New York and farther afield answered calls from Daniel's loved ones to attend the service.

Bagpipes played "America the Beautiful" under a brilliant sun as a 70-car procession filed past scores of firefighters in their blue dress uniforms, many wearing white gloves, some raising a salute to the fallen boy.

"This is a part of our extended family," said Lt. Eddie Boles, who works alongside Daniel's cousins as a firefighter in Harlem, 70 miles from of Newtown.

"After 9/11 the whole country extended its sympathy to New York, so we're here to show our support for this community," Boles said.

Daniel was described by loved ones as "the light of his family's life," an active boy who played soccer and swam on the Newtown Torpedoes swim team. His family said in an obituary notice that he loved "riding waves at the beach, playing the drums … foosball, reading, and making s'mores around the bonfire."

Like the day before, it was another anguished morning of one-after-another funeral services that tested Newtown's ability to cope emotionally and logistically. Mourners arriving for 6-year-old Caroline Previdi's funeral had to wait outside or in an adjacent building because Daniel's service was still going on.

Edward Kish, a family friend, remembered Caroline as "a jokester" who liked to wear pink and purple dresses, and was a Yankees fan. Once, her cousins brought her to Yankee Stadium for a game, recalled Kish, 44, who was working at the stadium box office at the time.

"She was thrilled," he said before the service. "Just such a happy girl."

Later in the chilly afternoon, in the postcard town of Woodbury, hundreds of mourners wearing winter coats lined up outside a tiny funeral home to pay their respects to Dawn Hochsprung, Sandy Hook's principal, who reportedly was killed when she rushed toward Lanza to try to stop him.

"It's really traumatic," said Lesley Petrafassi, a relative. "She was very devoted to her family … and all her students. She touched a lot of people."

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who was in Newtown meeting privately with school officials, planned to attend Hochsprung's wake. The 47-year-old educator left behind two daughters, three stepdaughters and four grandchildren and was described by one relative as "a 5-foot-2 raging bull."

"It's a testament to the kind of person she was," said Jerry Oglen, 28, a family friend. "She was super-outgoing. She took everything head-on."

Bengali reported from Newtown and Pearce from Los Angeles.

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