911 calls show anguish and tension in school shooting
December 5, 2013
HARTFORD, Conn. — As gunfire boomed over and over in the background, a janitor begged a 911 dispatcher to send help, saying, "There's still shooting going on! Please!" A woman breathlessly reported seeing a gunman run down a hall. And a teacher said she was holed up in her classroom with her children but hadn't yet locked the door.
Recordings of 911 calls from last year's Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting were released Wednesday, and they not only paint a picture of anguish and tension inside the building, they also show Newtown dispatchers mobilizing help, reassuring callers and urging them to take cover.
"Keep everybody calm. Keep everybody down. Get everybody away from windows, OK?" one dispatcher told the frightened teacher who reported hearing shots in the hall.
The calls were made public under a court order after a lengthy effort by The Associated Press. Prosecutors had argued that releasing the recordings would only cause more anguish for the victims' families.
The gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, shot his way through a plate-glass window at the front of the school on Dec. 14. The office staff saw the shooter, who was wearing a hat and sunglasses, as he entered the building with a rifle and began firing down a hallway.
One of the first callers to Newtown police was a woman who said in a trembling, out-of-breath voice: "I think there's somebody shooting in here at Sandy Hook school."
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Asked what made her think so, she said: "Because somebody's got a gun. I caught a glimpse of somebody. They're running down the hallway. Oh, they're still running. They're still shooting. Sandy Hook school, please."
Another woman, who was shot in the foot, calmly reported that she was in a classroom with children and two other adults, but that there was no way to safely lock the door. The dispatcher told her to apply pressure to the wound.
"OK, are you OK right now?" the dispatcher asked.
The woman answered: "For now, hopefully."
Another call came from a custodian, Rick Thorne, who said that a window at the front of the school was shattered and that he kept hearing shooting.
While on the line with Thorne, the dispatcher told somebody else: "Get everyone you can going down there."
Thorne remained on the phone for several minutes.
"There's still shooting going on! Please!" the custodian pleaded as six or seven shots could be heard in the background. "Still, it's still going on!"
Within 11 minutes of entering the school, Lanza had fatally shot 20 children and six educators with a semi-automatic rifle. Lanza also killed his mother in their Newtown home before driving to the school. He committed suicide as police closed in.
Newtown police officers arrived at the school within four minutes of the first 911 call, but nearly six more minutes passed before they entered the building while they sorted out concerns over a possible second shooter, according to a prosecutor's report issued last week.
It's not clear whether the delay made a difference because Lanza killed himself one minute after the first officer arrived on the scene, according to the report.
In one of the recordings released Wednesday, dispatchers were heard making three calls to Connecticut state police that apparently rang unanswered.
But state police had already been dispatched to the school by the time those calls were made, according to a timeline and call log supplied by Newtown officials.
In all, seven recordings of landline calls from inside the school to Newtown police were posted Wednesday. Calls that were routed to state police are the subject of a separate, pending freedom of information request by the AP.
"We all understand why some people have strong feelings about the release of these tapes. This was a horrible crime," said Kathleen Carroll, AP executive editor and senior vice president.
"It's important to remember, though, that 911 tapes, like other police documents, are public records. Reviewing them is a part of normal newsgathering in a responsible news organization."
Christina Hassinger, the daughter of slain Sandy Hook principal Dawn Hochsprung, praised the efforts of Thorne and the teachers who protected their students.
"The ability of the Sandy Hook teachers to keep calm in order to reassure their students during the most frightening time of their young lives was amazing. My mom would be proud," Hassinger said.
Teresa Rousseau, whose daughter Lauren was among the six educators killed, said she hadn't listened to the tapes: "The way we keep our sanity is to start ignoring this stuff."
Rousseau, an editor at the Danbury News-Times, said there was no need to play the tapes on the radio or television.
"I think there's a big difference between secrecy and privacy," she said. "We have these laws so government isn't secret, not so we're invading victims' privacy."
On the day of the shooting, the AP requested 911 calls and police reports, as it and other news organizations routinely do in their newsgathering.
The prosecutor in charge of the Newtown investigation, State's Attorney Stephen Sedensky III, argued that releasing the tapes could cause pain for the victims' families, hurt the investigation, subject witnesses to harassment and violate the rights of survivors who deserve special protection as victims of child abuse.
A state judge dismissed those arguments last week.
Releasing the recordings will "allow the public to consider and weigh what improvements, if any, should be made to law enforcement's response to such incidents," Superior Court Judge Eliot Prescott said.