NEWTOWN, Conn. (AP) — One by one by one by one, each with fresh heartbreak, hearses crisscrossed two New England towns on Wednesday, bearing three tiny victims of the Sandy Hook school massacre and a heroic teacher in a seemingly never-ending series of funeral processions.
"The first few days, all you heard were helicopters," said Dr. Joseph Young, an optometrist who attended one funeral and would go to several more. "Now at my office all I hear is the rumble of motorcycle escorts and funeral processions going back and forth throughout the day."
As more victims from the slaughter of 20 children and six adults were laid to rest, long funeral processions clogged the streets of Newtown, where Christmas trees were turned into memorials and a season that should be a time of joy was marked by heart-wrenching loss.
At least nine funerals and wakes were held Wednesday for those who died when gunman Adam Lanza, armed with a military-style assault rifle, broke into the school last Friday and opened fire on their classrooms. Lanza also killed his mother at her home before committing suicide.
At St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, mourners arrived for Caroline Previdi, an auburn-haired 6-year-old with an impish smile, before the service had even ended for Daniel Barden, a 7-year-old who dreamed of being a firefighter.
"It's sad to see the little coffins," said the Rev. John Inserra, a Catholic priest who worked at St. Rose for years before transferring to a church in Greenwich. He returned to his old parish to comfort families wondering how a loving God could permit such carnage, and has attended several of the funerals.
"It's always hard to bury a child," Inserra said of the unrelenting cycle of sorrow and loss. "God didn't do this. God didn't allow this. We allowed it. He said, 'send the little children to me.' But he didn't mean it this way."
Hundreds of firefighters formed a long blue line outside the church for little Daniel's funeral. Two of his relatives work at the Fire Department of New York, and the gap-toothed redhead had wanted to join their ranks one day.
"If me being here helps this family or this community just a little bit, it's worth it," said Kevin Morrow, a New York firefighter and father of two young girls. "He wanted to be a firefighter, as any young boy wants to be."
Family friend Laura Stamberg of New Paltz, N.Y., whose husband plays in a band with Daniel's father, said that on the morning of the shooting Mark Barden taught his son to play a Christmas song on the piano.
"They played foosball and then he taught him the song and then he walked him to the bus and that was their last morning together," Stamberg said.
At Caroline's funeral, mourners wore pink ties and scarves — her favorite color — and remembered her as a Yankees fan who liked to kid around. "Silly Caroline" was how she was known to neighbor Karen Dryer. "She's just a girl that was always smiling, always wanting others to smile."
Across town, at Christ the King Lutheran Church, hundreds gathered for the funeral of Charlotte Helen Bacon, many wearing buttons picturing the 6-year-old redhead. Speakers, including her grandfather, told of her love of wild animals, the family's golden retriever and the color pink.
She was "a beautiful little girl who could be a bit stubborn at times — just like all children," said Danbury resident Linda Clark as she left the service.
And in nearby Stratford, family and friends gathered to say goodbye to Victoria Soto, a first-grade teacher hailed as a hero for trying to shield her students, some of whom managed to escape. Musician Paul Simon, a family friend, performed "The Sound of Silence" at the service.
Peter Rusatsky, a friend of Soto's family, said he's clinging to his faith and the hope that something positive can emerge from the shooting.
"My wife is a teacher, too," he said. "And I think any teacher would not blink and just do whatever had to be done to protect those children."
In Woodbury, a line of colleagues, students and friends of slain Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Hochsprung, 47, wrapped around the block to pay their respects to the administrator, who rushed the gunman in an effort to stop him and paid with her life. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan attended the service.
"She loved kids. She'd do anything to help them and protect them," said Joann Opulski of Roxbury.
In emotion-charged Newtown, tempers flared as residents of the town of 27,000 navigated the hordes of reporters and camera crews that descended on the town. Some shouted at reporters outside the funerals Wednesday, urging them to leave their town in peace.
Cynthia Gubitose said the shooting and its aftermath have jolted what she described as a quintessential "Norman Rockwell, New England community."
"Nobody knew about Sandy Hook," Gubitose said as she placed flowers at a memorial with bouquets stacked chest-high. "Many of the people that live here like it that way."
The symbol of Christmas took on a new meaning in the town, where one memorial featured 26 Christmas trees — one for each victim at the school.
Edward Kish said he bought a Christmas tree two days before the shooting, but hasn't had the heart to put it up or decorate it.
"I'll still put it up, probably," he said. "It doesn't seem right, and it doesn't seem like Christmas."
Mourners from across the country came to offer condolences. A jazz band from Alabama played at the main memorial site as local children played with a team of trained therapy dogs brought in to provide comfort. A coffee-stained sheet of paper listing the stages of grief was taped to the counter of a local doughnut shop.
At the Newtown Library, dozens of people gathered Wednesday for a meeting of Newtown United, a grassroots community group formed in the wake of the shootings. The topic Wednesday was gun legislation, and how the community could push for a ban on assault weapons and other measures to make certain types of guns and ammunition harder to obtain.
There was a rumor that guests from Washington, D.C., would show up. About 10 minutes into the meeting Senator Richard Blumenthal and Senator-elect Chris Murphy walked into the room, to applause and surprised looks. They spoke and took questions for about a half hour.
The massacre continued to reverberate around America as citizens and lawmakers debated whether Newtown might be a turning point in the often-polarizing national discussion over gun control.
President Barack Obama pressed Congress to reinstate an assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004. He also called for stricter background checks for people who seek to purchase weapons and limited high-capacity clips.
"This time, the words need to lead to action," said Obama, who set a January deadline for the recommendations.
Authorities say the horrific events of Friday began when Lanza shot his mother, Nancy, at their home, and then took her car and some of her guns to the nearby school.
Investigators have found no letters or diaries that could explain the attack.
However, Connecticut's chief medical examiner, Dr. H. Wayne Carver, told The Hartford Courant he is looking for genetic clues that might explain the behavior, and is working with the University of Connecticut department of genetics.
The Connecticut State Police said Wednesday that a final report on the shooting could be several months away.