School shooting hits home

Locals deal with Connecticut murders
By Stina Sieg | Dec 16, 2012
Photo by: Stina Sieg On Saturday, a small gathering of Bethel residents honored the victims of the deadly shooting at a Connecticut elementary school. From left is Allie Messer, her mother, Anna Messer, father, Anthony Messer, and brother Adam Messer. Tommy Lee Rogers is at the end.

"These children are our children."

Those words came from President Barack Obama, but surely they're being said by millions of others across the country. As America copes with Friday's killing of 18 children and six adults at a small-town elementary school in Connecticut, state lines don't seem to matter much. For many strangers, the loss feels personal — including, of course, many in close-knit Haywood County.

Local resident Shara Case didn't know anyone at Sandy Hook Elementary, but she knew its hallways and classrooms. That was her school once, back when she was in first grade — the same grade as all of the youngest victims. She attended the school from 1986 to 1987.

"It was so long ago, but it hit home. It hit home," she said, describing her reaction to the news. "That place was like a tiny little town."

While Case, 34, doesn't remember too much about the school or the community of Newtown that surounds it, she does recall Sandy Hook being a "comfortable place" where she always enjoyed being. She's been watching the news coverage of the shooting but recently had to stop. It's just too disturbing.

In her disbelief and sadness, she posted a picture of her first-grade class at the school. She wants people to get a "real visual" of this tragedy, she said, to see the reality of what was lost.

"It's really scary — and just the innocence of children," she added, pausing for a beat. "That's what makes me so sick about it."

Kathleen Rathbone is also heart sick over the situation, so much so that she organized an impromptu vigil Saturday afternoon outside the Bethel Event Center.

In her words, "the Lord laid it on my heart" to do so.

"We're just going to do what we can to support the families who have lost so much," she said, before about 15 people gathered around a tall, wooden cross.

Noisy trucks sped by as the small but passionate group spoke of their sorrow and belief in God, but it didn't break the power of the moment. Over the constant sounds of sniffles and sighs, Rathbone and others read Bible verses and talked about evil in the world and the need for love. Many prayers were sent off to everyone involved in the tragedy.

Rev. Danny Long repeated time and time again that "God is love," and Rev. Kim Milner said he knew that God would get the families of the victims through their time of need. Milner also, however, sounded shocked that anyone could endure something so painful.

"I just don't think I could do that," he said, getting choked up. "To think that I could lose my own sons … I just don't know."

The Rev. Kris Estep urged that everyone pray for the victims and their families, including the family of the shooter, a 20-year-old man who also killed his mother and eventually himself. Estep, who's both a preacher at Barberville Baptist Church and a fire department chaplain, stressed that the perpetrator's family is in pain, like everyone touched by this violence.

"Everybody just seems to forget about them," he said, "that they're hurting in all of this."

After many pauses for prayer and moments of silence, the small group slowly dispersed, though several people didn't seem quite ready to go. Like many, Anna Messer, who had come with her husband and two children, stayed after the ceremony to chat with others. When asked if the event had helped her, she didn't have to think about it.

"Yes, because you can feel the presence of the Lord," she said.

Sheri Henson explained that she knew she "had to be here," even though she's going through her own sorrow. Her sister, Elizabeth Swanger, died a few a days ago, and her funeral was the same day as the shooting. Even though Henson didn't know any of the people who died up north, she can't get them out of her mind.

She believes her pain pales in comparison to what those families are going through.

On Friday, "I think I cried more for them" than her own family, she said.

Raising a 6-year-old, she feels both the anguish and the bewilderment surrounding this event. Getting a little emotional, she explained that she can't imagine dropping off her little boy at school and never seeing him again. It's "unreal" that this could ever happen, she said — in Connecticut, in North Carolina, anywhere.

Like so many, she wants to know something she probably never will: Why?

"Just give me answers," she said.


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