On December 14, 2012, the world stood still as the events of Newtown unfolded. The unimaginable had happened. And yet, out of the tragedy, heroes were born. Kaitlin Roig is one of them. She barricaded the door, told her students she loved them and pray
Kaitlin roig, slender, blonde, and twenty-nine, slips out of the morning sunshine and into a café on Greenwich Avenue. She’s wearing pink jeans and an orange cotton blouse. People sipping their cappuccinos turn discreetly as she makes her way to a table in the rear: Haven’t they seen her on TV or something like that? Or is it simply her casual beach-girl radiance that they notice? Kaitlin sits, smiles, orders a lemonade. She is in fact a schoolteacher, and she has come here to talk about spreading kindness and compassion—perhaps the most important lesson that a teacher of first-graders can impart.
She’s about to explain her new mission when a back door near her table opens loudly, almost with a bang. She flinches. “Noises,” Kaitlin says, “are still difficult.”
The Day That Changed Everything
Early on the morning of December 14, 2012, Kaitlin was gathering up her things for work when she noticed, from her apartment near Byram Harbor, the sun rising above the eastern horizon. It spread across Long Island Sound with such fiery brilliance that she set down her bag and keys to snap a picture. A sunrise to remember, she thought, and hurried out to her car. By the time she reached Exit 10 off I-84, the sun was just its ordinary self, bright and flat in the winter sky. She drove through the Newtown countryside and turned right at Dickenson Drive, where a quaint sign reads, “Sandy Hook School. 1956. Visitors Welcome.”
Kaitlin’s classroom is situated just inside the school’s main entrance, across the hall from the principal’s office. It’s the first classroom that any visitor would see. As Kaitlin finished organizing her lesson plan for the day, her “little angels,” as she calls them, filtered into the room. They’re of an age—six and seven—that she adores. “They are filled with excitement and wonder,” she says. “They truly have a passion for everything we do. Most important, first grade is generally where children begin to read, where everything clicks for them. That moment when a student begins to read fluently is like winning the lottery each time.” Her fifteen children (one was absent) settled in quietly to do morning work while Kaitlin circled round their desks. At 9:25 a.m., as was her custom, she put on a recording of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!—the children’s cue to gather on the little rug in the far corner of the room for morning meeting.
Meanwhile, at 36 Yogananda Street on the other side of town, something had gone horribly wrong. The green-shuttered Colonial stood pristinely on the brow of a hill, its front door festooned with Christmas garlands and a large wreath. Behind this façade of suburban contentment, however, Nancy Lanza, fifty-two, a divorced former stockbroker, was having trouble with her twenty-year-old son, Adam. Odd and withdrawn, he lived in a fantasy world of shoot-’em-up video games; though his house was brimful of very real, very accessible weapons—rifles, shotguns, handguns, swords, knives, bayonets. Here fantasy and reality had fused. That morning Adam Lanza walked into his mother’s bedroom, possibly while she slept, and emptied four bullets from a .22-caliber rifle into her head. Then, for reasons nobody knows, he took the wheel of his black Honda Civic and threaded his way toward a school he had attended a decade before, Sandy Hook Elementary.
Kaitlin’s first-graders sat in a circle around her chair, talking about their various family holiday traditions. “With the holidays so close, they were full of anticipation,” she says. “Soon we were going to build gingerbread houses, which is always a huge deal. They were just so happy.” After the sharing period, Kaitlin began outlining the day ahead. The highlight would be a visit from the school’s reading specialist in about an hour. “Let’s get excited about reading today!” Kaitlin said to her little charges, pumping up their confidence. “I know you’re going to shine."
Adam Lanza pulled to a stop outside Sandy Hook’s main entrance at about 9:35, mere feet from Kaitlin’s classroom. Visitors were not quite so welcome as the sign at the foot of Dickenson Drive suggested; a new security system required them to announce themselves on camera and be buzzed in through locked doors. But the system was no match for Lanza, who was equipped with a Bushmaster .223-caliber semiautomatic rifle and two semiautomatic handguns. He raised the rifle to the glass.
Kaitlin looked up. “The sound was extremely loud, and extremely close to my classroom—right on the other side of the wall—and repetitive. It wasn’t like, ‘Boom!’ It was like, ‘Di-di-di-di-di-di-di-di!’ And it wouldn’t stop.”
Her mind did not freeze or cloud over in confusion; it instantly grasped the presence of an armed intruder, or intruders. She leapt up and ran to turn off the lights and shut the door—but she did not lock it. Her keys were in her desk, in another corner of the classroom, and she knew instinctively that spending the seconds required to fetch them might be a fatal mistake. “Everyone in the bathroom!” she ordered with quiet urgency. “They all looked at me like I was nuts,” but they dashed across the room and piled in. “This is a tiny, tiny, space,” Kaitlin explains, sketching a diagram in a notebook. “Just a toilet and toilet paper dispenser. That’s all that’s in it. The sink’s on the outside. So we all got in. I just started picking them up and putting them behind the door, so I could close it.” Luckily the door closed inward, so Kaitlin could wheel a math supplies cabinet across it to serve as a visual impediment. Thus barricaded, Kaitlin closed and locked the door.
On hearing the gunfire and shattering glass, Principal Dawn Hochsprung, school psychologist Mary Sherlach, and lead teacher Natalie Hammond rushed out of a meeting across from Kaitlin’s classroom and found Adam Lanza in the hallway—beanpole-thin, pop-eyed, open-mouthed. He was dressed all in black save for an olive-green utility vest bulging with 30-round magazines. His Bushmaster rifle was drawn. “Shooter! Stay put!” one or more of the women shouted, allowing those in the meeting to take cover. Lanza opened fire, killing Hochsprung and Sherlach. Hammond managed to slip behind the conference room door and push her body against it; Lanza shot anyway, hitting her in the foot, leg and hand (she was one of only two who suffered nonfatal wounds).
Mysteriously, Lanza passed Kaitlin’s classroom and proceeded down the hall. Or not so mysteriously: Kaitlin had neglected to remove a large piece of black paper that she’d placed over her door’s portal window in preparation for a lockdown drill earlier in the year; this bit of good fortune, combined with her quick action—resulting in the closed door under which no light shone—may have given Lanza the impression that the classroom was empty.
Lanza instead turned from the school offices—where a nurse and a secretary were calling 911 from under a desk—to face two first-grade classrooms: Lauren Rousseau’s and Victoria Soto’s. First he entered Rousseau’s room, two doors down from Kaitlin’s, and fatally shot the teacher, teacher’s aide Rachel D’Avino and fourteen children who were huddled together in fear. One little girl, covered in her classmates’ blood, survived by playing dead.
Lanza then backtracked slightly to Soto’s classroom—right next to Kaitlin’s. Soto and teacher’s aide Anne Marie Murphy had spent the prior seconds ushering kids into closets and other hiding places. Soto was (by some accounts) shutting the classroom door when Lanza appeared before her, demanding to know where the children had gone. “They’re in the auditorium,” she said in desperation. Just then six children burst from hiding in an effort to escape, and Lanza gunned them down, as well as Soto and Murphy, who had tried to shield them with their bodies. (Seven children remained in the closets, unharmed.)
From the darkened bathroom, Kaitlin and the children could hear muffled voices. “We heard people pleading for their lives: ‘Please, no. Oh, please—no.” The eruption of gunfire, so startling at first, now seemed interminable. “In my mind, he’s coming here next. I thought we were all going to die,” she says. “But I told the kids, ‘I need you to know that I love you very much, and it’s going to be OK.’ I couldn’t cry, because if the teacher starts crying, they would all start crying. That’s how it is when you’re six and seven. I remember one of my little girls did start, so I tried to be almost motherly, I held her face in my hands and said, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK, let me see your smile.’”
The children were afraid but did not cry out as Kaitlin worked to soothe them. “They were saying things like, ‘I just want to go home for Christmas, Miss Roig, I don’t want to die. I just want to hug my mom.’ One little boy said, ‘I know karate, I’ll lead the way out!’ And I said, ‘That’s sooo thoughtful of you, but there are really bad guys out there right now. We’re gonna stay here till the good guys come.”
Kaitlin thought about her fiancée, Nick Debellis, an assistant golf course superintendent at Ardsley Country Club, near the Hudson River, who at that very moment was cutting up trees that Hurricane Sandy had strewn about the course six weeks earlier. They planned to marry this summer. “I had this definite feeling, for however long he was shooting—‘I’m not going to marry my fiancé, dying in here, I’m going to watch my kids die, I’m going to die.’” Kaitlin sheds tears as she revisits that hour, but quickly steels herself. “I said, ‘Anyone who believes in the power of prayer needs to start praying right now, and if you don’t pray at home, you can start thinking positive thoughts.’ And I closed my eyes and started praying. And then I opened them and saw some of them praying, and some with their fingers crossed.”
Out of the Darkness
The wail of approaching sirens sent Lanza into the hallway. There, outside Soto’s door, as the police entered the building, he put a Glock pistol to his temple and fired—the 155th and final shot of the Sandy Hook massacre. Twenty children and six educators lay dead or dying of multiple wounds. Though it was the second-worst mass shooting in American history, the ages of the child victims made the massacre seem utterly unique in its horror.
Kaitlin, closeted away in the dark, could not perceive clearly what had happened or whether it was over; she heard footfalls in the building and men saying, “Don’t look up; keep your eyes down; don’t open your eyes”—but these men spoke so sternly that she wondered if they were taking hostages: “That’s where my mind was.” At least the shooting had stopped.
The sixteen of them were packed in so tightly that Kaitlin began to worry about the children fighting for air. “Obviously there was a gap under the door,” she says, “but the space was so small and we were getting so hot.” Finally, after roughly forty-five minutes in the bathroom, someone knocked. “Open up, little fella,” a man said, apparently expecting to find a child or two locked inside. It was then that Kaitlin spoke up: “I need your badge. Slide your badge under the door.” Cautious by nature, she studied the duly provided badge and questioned its authenticity. She said, “If you’re really the police, you’d be able to go get the keys and unlock this door.”
This they did, patiently trying a ring full of keys until they found the right one. “And there were probably fifteen to twenty SWAT team members standing in my classroom,” Kaitlin recalls. “I’ll never know if we were more shocked to see them, or they were more shocked to see us.”
Kaitlin took two children by the hand, SWAT teamers took the others by ones and twos, and they all walked past the two classrooms where students and teachers lay slaughtered—police had shut the doors—and went out a side exit and down to the firehouse at the foot of Dickenson Drive. Parents were arriving, frantically scanning the scene for their children. “By the time we got to the firehouse, everyone was there,” Kaitlin says. “Just a mob scene. Chaos.”
Meanwhile, as Nick Debellis was cutting and chipping trees, his cell phone kept vibrating against his leg. After a dozen or so calls, he decided he’d better answer: it was his brother, asking if Kaitlin was OK; there’d been a shooting at her school. Nick quickly played his messages and found one from Kaitlin. She’d called from a borrowed phone and said only that something had happened but she was safe. Relieved, Nick, together with his boss, headed to the pro shop to see what the news had to say. “They were reporting that one teacher had been shot in the foot,” Nick remembers. “I thought, you know, must be some angry parent who pulled a gun and it went off. But as we were watching, we could see the newscaster’s mouth just drop. In a second it went from someone shot in the foot to twenty-something dead.”
Kaitlin left the firehouse at about 2 p.m. with her mother, Kathy, since her own car was blocked in by a fleet of emergency vehicles. She knew that people had died in the shooting but was confused about who and how many. At her parents’ house, in Danbury, Kaitlin was “in shock, but totally aware,” Kathy Roig says. “All she could say was, ‘I’m alive’—both as a question and a statement.” Nick got there in short order. “Kaitlin came out crying and gave me a big hug. At that point I had no idea she’d been right in the middle of it all.”
Inside the house the phone rang incessantly. “Every network, every newspaper you can think of was calling,” Nick says; even a major film studio called, wondering if Kaitlin would cooperate in the making of a TV movie. Kaitlin’s inclination was to ignore them all, but Kathy suggested she talk to ABC’s Diane Sawyer, whose producer had been calling and calling, and then be done with the press, which had begun to flock.
Sawyer arrived about a half hour later, around the time President Obama addressed the nation, brushing away tears. Sawyer slipped off her shoes, hung up her coat, embraced Kaitlin’s father, Pat, and got Kaitlin settled on the living room couch. Nick watched as Sawyer conducted a heartrending interview with his fiancée. It was only then that he learned how narrowly Kaitlin had escaped the gunman’s wrath—and how decisively she had acted to avoid it. “I was in awe,” he says. But he was also somewhat in shock himself. It was only much later that night, after Kaitlin had gone to bed and he sat up watching the news, that a strange combination of heartbreak and relief overwhelmed him.
Rising from the Aftermath
The Newtown massacre underscored a disturbing split in the national psyche—one side appalled that the solution to our gun-violence problem, for too many of us, was more guns, guns in our homes, schools and offices; the other side appalled that Americans would even contemplate restrictions on a bedrock constitutional right. Delusional America also made itself heard: A contingent of Sandy Hook “truthers” pronounced the massacre a hoax, a conspiracy designed to grab our guns, for which Kaitlin and other “crisis actors” had been enlisted to play stunned teachers and grieving parents.
Kaitlin more or less ignored all of this. She has no political drum to beat. In February she attended the President’s State of the Union address, where she could be seen sitting next to Jill Biden, looking fashion-model elegant. But her main comment about that evening, other than its surreality, was to applaud the President’s call for improved access to preschool.
On January 2, Kaitlin reunited with her class at Chalk Hill School in neighboring Monroe while Newtown debated what to do with Sandy Hook Elementary, where the countless good memories had been obliterated by one nightmarish morning. (The town decided to raze the school building and design a new one.) The children did not speak much about December 14, Kaitlin says, except to say, “Remember that day when the bad guys came to school?” But sudden noises, like a desk being dragged across an upstairs floor, “would send them into a panic.”
On the plus side, people around the world showered Sandy Hook students with gifts: cupcakes, teddy bears, checks, cut-out paper snowflakes with which Kaitlin decorated her new classroom. One day she brought in a box of recess toys that a friend of hers had donated: puzzles, games, paints, little dolls. “I started pulling this stuff out, and they were so excited,” she says. “I said, ‘Why did somebody do this for us? Do you know?’ Everybody started raising their hands: ‘People wanted to be kind; they wanted to make us feel good.’ And I said, ‘You’re right! And in life, when somebody does something nice for you, you should do something nice for somebody else, because that’s what makes the world a better place.’ I knew that if I didn’t teach them that, I’d be missing a lesson here.”
Then Kaitlin made an intriguing discovery. “They were saying, ‘Who are we going to help, what are we going to give them?’ They were almost more excited than they were to get all the gifts that I’d just shown them.” Her students had probably heard some variation of the Golden Rule before, but now they were putting it into action in a very concrete way, for people they’d never met. “And I was like, ‘Wait a minute. This could be much bigger than an experience just for my class. What if every child’s class could do this?’”
And that’s how the nonprofit “Classes 4 Classes” was born. The basic idea is for a class in grades K–5 to identify another class in need—of iPads, Kindles or a SMART board, for example—and then post the project goal on the Classes 4 Classes website (classes4classes.org). Donors from around the country then choose among projects to contribute to; meanwhile, the giving class might organize tag sales or movie nights to help reach the dollar goal. When a project is fully funded, the kids get a pizza party—and the immense satisfaction of having connected with the larger world. But here’s the twist: The receiving class must in turn identify a class to help, and the chain of giving continues.
So far nine projects have been fully funded, including one at Riverside School in Greenwich. Kaitlin, who serves as the nonprofit’s executive director and has an accomplished six-person board behind her, spent the summer preparing for her wedding in August and for Classes 4 Classes’ nationwide launch this month; further on the horizon is a gala fundraiser, planned for spring. Unrelated to Classes 4 Classes, she has been invited to speak to teachers across the country about the unexpectedly important roles teachers sometimes play. “If my story or message could affect just one teacher’s outlook,” she says, “then I owe it to them.”
At times after the massacre, Nick wondered how Kaitlin seemed to be coping as well as she was, especially given her proximity to the killing. He would even ask, “Don’t you want to talk to somebody more than you are?” But then he realized something: “The fact that she got this idea and took off with it is her therapy.”
For Kaitlin, there are no real answers about Newtown; darkness has always stood next to light. One morning many years ago, Pat and Kathy Roig woke to what should have been a day of pure joy: They were going to pick up their newly adopted daughter, their only child—Kaitlin. But during the night Kaitlin’s grandmother, who lived with the Roigs, had died in her sleep. Kaitlin’s arrival then seemed all the more providential, “My parents always made me feel like I was a ray of light in their lives, as they so obviously have been in mine,” she says. “Being adopted, I always knew that life is a gift. You know, my birth parents could have just…” She falls silent for a moment. “But fortunately they had me, and here I am.” (Five years ago Kaitlin learned that her birth parents had married, had a daughter, and lived Westport. Today she has a warm relationship with them.)
An awareness of life’s preciousness runs through everything Kaitlin does, from the moment the sun rises—though maybe a bit more intensely since December 14. “Often I’ll just stop and say, ‘Thank you for this minute. Thank you for this hour. Thank you for this day.’ Because it’s certainly not promised. Not at all.”