I’ve now covered the two worst mass shootings in American history. The massacre in Newtown comes just five-and-a-half years after a student at Virginia Tech shot and killed 32 people on campus.
The Newtown shooting is much closer to home, and involves the unimaginable death of 20 elementary school children.
We did speak to some family members, and I can say that there are no words that can possibly rise to the level of consolation.
As President Barack Obama said, “Someone once described the joy and anxiety of parenthood as the equivalent of having your heart outside of your body all the time, walking around … we also know that with that child’s very first step, and each step after that, they are separating from us; that we won’t — that we can’t — always be there for them.”
And how could the parents of Newtown, sending their little ones off to school, think that they were anything but safe.
First responders know it’s their job to show up when the worst happens. Reporters regularly follow close behind. But none of us were prepared for this.
Neither was Janet Vollmer.
She is a kindergarten teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School. And she told me a tale of terror.
On that Friday morning, she was tipped off by sounds coming from the school’s intercom: there was trouble.
Vollmer heard what she believed was gunshots.
She and her two teacher aides sprung into action. They locked the door, and, most importantly, tried to keep the kids calm. When the children asked about the noises, Vollmer told them, “The janitors are up on the roof, trying to get a soccer ball.
The kids were okay for a while, but eventually they started to get worried. And so did Janet Vollmer. The shooting continued for a few more minutes. But then it stopped, and the waiting was hard to take. Finally, police arrived at her classroom door.
Officers told Vollmer and the children to close their eyes. But the teacher did open them on the chilling walk through the hallways. She saw blood on the ground, but fortunately nothing else. Then, at last, they’d made it outside.
Vollmer had taught some of the first graders who had been murdered. Their parents came up to her and asked if she’d seen them.
“I had no words,” she said. “All I could say was no, no I didn’t.”
Vollmer was incredibly cool as she told me her story. She said she had to be, for her children.
She has taught for 18 years. Last Friday, she had to endure the loss of little ones she had taught, and colleagues who were also her friends.
Janet Vollmer would never admit it, but she is a hero.
Whenever there is tragedy, there are also heroes who step up. And for every maniac who raises a weapon, there are hundreds more willing to stand up to them.
Sadly, we probably haven’t seen the end of these horrors. But we also haven’t seen the end of the long line of heroes.