By David Ariosto and Thom Patterson
NEWTOWN, Connecticut (CNN) — The sound of gunfire, confusion, a lockdown and then an evacuation. Witnesses, students and parents told frightening stories Friday about a school shooting that a law enforcement source said left close to 30 people dead, most of them children.
Many details of the attack remained unclear, but the sight of dozens of emergency vehicles and police spread across the wooded campus made it clear Sandy Hook Elementary School has become the nation’s latest infamous crime scene. Authorities said the school had been secured and that danger had passed.
Parents, who had rushed to the school after hearing the news, reunited with their children, clutching them and then hurrying away, while police checked nearby houses and buildings. The FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are on the scene.
In front of a nearby firehouse where children were evacuated, an American flag flew at half-staff.
Outside the school, Lynn Wasik wrapped her arms around her 8-year-old daughter, Alexis, cloaked against the cold in an oversized jacket. The girl described her ordeal after police and teachers barged into her third-grade classroom and ordered her and her classmates to hide in a corner.
“Everybody was crying,” Alexis said. “And I just heard the police officers yelling.”
Her mother said she first learned about the emergency through an automated phone call message. She said the message wasn’t clear about the school where the incident had occurred. In a panic, she raced to Sandy Hook, eventually finding Alexis unharmed.
“My heart is in a million pieces for those families,” said Lynn Wasik. “Who could do something like this? It’s just sickening.”
Like Wasik, other parents wrapped their arms around their children as they hurried away from the scene.
The FBI presence became much more evident in the afternoon. Several federal officers in tactical gear were coordinating with state and local law enforcement.
“I was in the gym at the time,” student Brendan Murray told CNN affiliate WABC. “I heard screaming and I thought a custodian was knocking down things. Police came in, teachers yelled to get to a safe place. Police were knocking on the doors — police were at every door, leading us down, quick, quick.”
Brendan said he later joined classmates and ran to the firehouse “really quick. We were all really happy that we were all alive.”
Teary-eyed parents continued to emerge from the firehouse. Some were talking on cell phones, using words like “chaotic” and “devastating.”
Others were openly weeping into their phones as they walked up a wooded roadway leading away from the school.
“Why? Why?” one woman cried as she walked away.
Earlier, a woman who lives near the firehouse described seeing “a bunch of children with a bunch of adults” apparently evacuating toward a nearby park. “I seen five children running up through our back field,” the woman told CNN. “And by God, those poor little guys were running.”
Breaking news photos from outside the school showed adults leading children away from the school. The youngsters, wearing no coats and dressed in brightly colored clothing, walked one behind another, with their hands resting on the shoulders of the ones in front of them.
Temperatures hovered just above freezing.
After an initial report that “close to 20 people” were killed in the school, a federal law enforcement source in Washington told CNN that the number was closer to 30, and most of those killed were children.
A local TV station reported 600 children are enrolled at the school, spanning kindergarten through grade 4.
‘Pop, pop pop’
In a terrifying account, a parent who was inside the school at the time of the shooting described hearing a “pop, pop, pop,” sound around 9:30 a.m. Also in the room were the school’s principal, vice principal and the psychologist. All three left the room and went into the hall to see what was happening. The parent ducked under the table and called 911.
“I cowered,” she told CNN’s Meredith Artley. The shooter “must have shot a hundred rounds.”
Later the parent said she saw two adults lying dead in the hallway, in a pool of blood.
Although school shootings have become sadly familiar in 21st century America, violence is not common in this picturesque 300-year-old town of about 27,000.
“I can’t believe — in a small town like this — we’ve never had anything like this happen,” a father of a Sandy Hook student told local CNN affiliate WTNH. “I was pretty shaken up. I did not know who or what happened.”
“It doesn’t seem possible,” said another parent. “You have something happen so close to home. … I guess I’m still in shock.” .
Other officers, some in tactical gear, stood around the school with guns drawn, CNN affiliate WFSB reported.
All schools in the city were on lockdown Friday as police assessed the situation, state police spokesman Lt. Paul Vance said.
Mike Branchwell, who has lived in the area since 2005, told CNN the district’s schools are “very highly rated,” and are a big attraction for many of the people who move to the area, including his family, which includes two in high school.
Just a few weeks ago the town — about 60 miles outside New York City — was recovering from Hurricane Sandy, which downed trees and knocked out power to most customers. A year before, residents suffered through Hurricane Irene.
CNN’s David Ariosto and Susan Candiotti reported from Newtown, Connecticut, Terry Frieden and John King reported from Washington and Thom Patterson and Meredith Artley reported from Atlanta.
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