December 14, 2012: one of the saddest days in American history. At Sandy Hook Elementary school, located in Newtown, Conn., 26 individuals were shot to death by a deeply disturbed 20-year-old Adam Lanza. Twenty of the victims involved in this horrific shooting were children aged six to seven. With so many young lives gone, December 14 will forever be a day no one will forget.
For two students at Springfield College, juniors Ken Toal and Max Nacewicz, the Sandy Hook shooting was more than a nationwide tragedy: it was a hometown tragedy.
Growing up in such a safe and friendly community, no one would suspect such a horrific act to occur. Newtown is a place where someone can walk into any store and know five people, people who aren’t just neighbors, but also friends.
Toal remembers the day like it was yesterday. He spent the beginning of the day in the dark, cramming for his hardest final of the semester. His brain was numb from hours of studying. After his final, Toal came back to his room, feeling good about the test he had just conquered before he turned on the news. In a moment, he was at an utter loss for words.
Toal called his then-girlfriend and received mortifying details. He spent the remainder of his day in a state of heavy emotion, distracting himself with more studying and calling his family, trying to get a mental grasp on why anybody would commit such a crime.
“I was really shocked,” said Toal. “You always see things happen. There was Columbine, and you say, ‘Wow, that is terrible,’ but it doesn’t really hit you about how terrible it is until it is in your hometown.”
“I wanted to go home; I wanted to be with my family,” added Toal. “There is always a level of comfort with being with your family.”
While Toal wanted to be home, Nacewicz, a defensive end for the Springfield football team, was at a point of disbelief. Receiving a call from his high school football coach after a barrage of texts mid-class, Nacewicz returned his call to get the startling news.
“I was in class and my phone was blowing up from back home. My parents were calling me and my football coach was calling me. I go in the bathroom real quick and check my phone and it was my coach. He told me what was going on and I was shocked. I started calling everyone that I was close to. It was a pretty surreal moment.
“I didn’t go home initially after; I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to see all of that,” said Nacewicz, who hails from the Sandy Hook section of Newtown.
Returning home only a few days after the tragedy took place, Nacewicz shared a feeling that many had. News vans filled the streets, while people gathered by the hundreds in the town square to pay their respects and to be in each other’s company.
“When I got home my dad drove me through Sandy Hook center. There is a giant Christmas tree there, and it is right down the road from the elementary school,” said Toal. “There was so much traffic there. It was a place [where] people would leave signs, flowers and candles, and there were people everywhere.”
Now, members of this close-knit community weren’t just friends, they were family, a family drawn closer together by this horrifying event.
Newtown, located in the southern end of Connecticut, was always a place where one could feel right at home. It is a place where one can walk into Bagel Delight to be greeted by the elderly lady, Eunice, who always knows your order. It is the kind of town where residents choose the local hardware store over Home Depot. In a town so close it is inevitable that all involved, including Toal and Nacewicz, would have ties to the victims. Although they have deemed it as personal information, both acknowledge this heavy experience.
Toal, originally born in Austria, came to the States at the age of five before eventually moving to Newtown at the age of eight. Feeling right at home from the beginning, Toal knows that no matter what his hometown goes through it will always be just that: home.
“It is the place you call home. It is supposed to be your safe place,” said Toal. “It gives a new appreciation for the meaning of home.”
With the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting looming, a plethora of bad memories accompany it. In times of desperation and mourning, reflection becomes a key component in healing. With so many young, innocent lives being taken so early, one cannot help but to realize how life is a gift. Nacewicz knows that someone always has it tougher.
“I guess you look at life a little differently – no, you definitely look at life differently after that,” said Nacewicz. “You are going through a hard time and you realize it is nothing compared to what other people go through on a daily basis. You are just a lot more thankful.”
This small New England town is now forever branded. What is still a friendly, hospitable community is now known around the world as the place where the Sandy Hook shooting occurred. Despite what took place, the community of Newtown stays strong, being proud of where they are from.
“I don’t shy away from telling people where I’m from. I tell them I’m from Newtown, Conn,” said Toal. “We don’t forget, but we don’t let it define us. We are more than one incident in a town.”