NEWTOWN, Conn. -- A once-idyllic town where the local firehouse sold Christmas trees and children gobbled gourmet ice cream at a parlor called Holy Cow abruptly changed in the aftermath of the second-deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
Now the firehouse has become a comfort center for the bereaved, and the community has tasted the salt of tears during a prayer vigil at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church across from the ice cream shop.
Memorial services for the 20 first-graders and six adults killed at Sandy Hook School began just hours after Friday morning's shooting rampage stunned this middle-class western Connecticut town of 26,000.
The White House has announced that President Barack Obama plans to visit Newtown today to meet with family members of the shooting victims. He'll also speak at a interfaith vigil at 7 tonight for the school's families.
Throughout this small community, spray-painted signs reading "Pray for the Families" and "Our Hearts Are Broken" are interspersed among sidewalk advertisements for Christmas wreaths, which townspeople were forgoing in favor of colorful flower bouquets they left at the turnoff for Sandy Hook School.
Just beyond, police were continuing an arduous collection of evidence. The task was expected to continue through Monday and possibly beyond, state police spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance said during a briefing Saturday.
"I'm not putting a time limit on it. It could take a long time," he said. "We're going to peel back the onion layer by layer and examine every crack and crevice of that school and that does not exclude the outside of the building."
The only victim to survive -- a school employee shot in the foot -- is "doing fine" and is expected to help significantly as police identify a motive and compile a chronology of the incident, which began when alleged shooter Adam Lanza, 20, entered the school by force, Mr. Vance said. Police say Mr. Lanza took his own life.
Before heading to the school, Mr. Lanza shot and killed his mother, Nancy Lanza, at the home they shared nearby, police said.
Early reports indicated Mrs. Lanza worked at the school, possibly as a substitute teacher. But on Saturday, Mr. Vance said that she never worked there and had no obvious ties to the school.
Mr. Vance on Saturday would not speculate on a motive but said troopers already have collected "very good evidence." He declined to specify what type.
H. Wayne Carver II, the state's medical examiner, told reporters many victims had been struck multiple times by rifle bullets. Some of the shootings were from close range, he said.
He called it the worst scene he had witnessed in three decades examining crime scenes, "and the worst that I know any of my colleagues have seen," he said.
Police have said the .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle and two other weapons Mr. Lanza brought into the school -- a Glock and a Sig Sauer -- were registered to his mother.
Mr. Vance said troopers are tracing the ownership history of the guns.
"We will know every single thing about those weapons," he assured.
Third-grader Maleeh Ali said two classes, hers and another, huddled together in an area of her classroom she called the "book nook" to hide from the shooter while a voice emanating from the public address system told children to stay calm.
"We heard guns, and we also heard screaming and crying," she said.
Her class survived, but Vicki Soto -- the beloved first-grade teacher who taught her how to tell time and use a ruler -- did not.
"Miss Soto would care for and love each and every student," Maleeh, 8, wrote on a poster she made Saturday morning to honor the memory of her favorite teacher.
The project "helped her really be able to get her emotions out and express herself," said Sabeena Ali, Maleeh's mother.
The shooting left Maleeh frightened and emotional.
"I don't really like to be alone now. Sometimes it seems like it will happen again," Maleeh said.
As bullets ravaged the front of the school, four staff members in the back herded 18 confused fourth-graders into a library storage closet.
School library clerk Maryann Jacob said she heard a scuffle in the hall followed by noise over the intercom that prompted her to call the main office. A secretary told her a gunman was in the building.
She followed the building's emergency plan, locking the doors and covering the windows. When one door wouldn't lock she and other staffers prodded children into a closet, gave them crayons and told them to stay still and keep quiet. She said she didn't want to frighten them so she told them it was a drill and that they were safe.
Two staff members had cell phones and tried to call police but were unable to get cell service, she said.
They stayed inside until they heard pounding on the door and voices claiming to be police. The staff members refused to open the door until one of the officers slid his badge under to prove who he was, Ms. Jacob said.
Ms. Jacob told her story stoically, but broke into sobs when a reporter asked how she was doing.
Among those killed was principal Dawn Hochsprung, a native of nearby Naugatuck, who famously dressed up as the "book fairy" to students' delight.
School superintendent Janet Robinson said Saturday that Ms. Hochsprung and the school psychologist, Mary Sherlach, were shot as they tried to tackle the gunman "in order to protect her students."
The killings left a profound sadness on the community where people alternately counted their own blessings and cried for their neighbors' losses.
"I feel selfish because my whole family is safe and other people have lost their children and their spouses," said Mary Pendergast, who lives near the school. Her 9-year-old nephew was inside but unharmed.
Rena Cherry of nearby Oxford, who sometimes works as a substitute school secretary in Danbury, said the faculty's heroism and administrator's good planning for disasters prevented more deaths.
"They maintained composure and had plans to keep the children quiet. It's miraculous what they did," she said.
About 600 students in kindergarten through fourth grade attend Sandy Hook School in Newtown, which is about 80 miles northeast of New York City.
Tracie Mauriello: 703-996-9292 or email@example.com. Staff writer Michael Fuoco and The New York Times contributed. First Published December 16, 2012 5:00 AM