NEWTOWN, Conn. — The stories of those first on the scene at the killings of 20 students in Connecticut in December reveal the deep stress that lingers.
The gunfire ended; now it was so quiet they could hear broken glass and bullet casings scrape under their boots. The smell of gunpowder filled the air. The officers turned down their radios: if there was still a shooter, they did not want to give away their position.
Officer Maryhelen McCarthy places flowers at a makeshift memorial outside St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. (AP Image)
They found two women first, their bodies lying on the lobby floor. This was real. But nothing could prepare them for what they found next, inside two classrooms.
''One look, and your life was absolutely changed,'' said Michael McGowan, one of the first police officers to arrive at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, as a gunman, in the space of minutes, killed 20 first-graders and six adult staff members.
Officer McGowan was among seven Newtown police officers who sat down with The New York Times, most speaking to the media for the first time. Taken together, their stories provide the fullest account yet of the scene as officers responded to one of the worst school massacres in American history.
One child had a faint pulse but didn't survive. Another was found, bloody but unhurt, amid her dead classmates. Teachers were so protective that they had to be coaxed by officers before opening doors. And the officers themselves - many of them fathers - instinctively used soothing daddy voices to guide terrified children to safety.
The stories reveal the deep stress that lingers for police officers who, until Dec. 14, had focused energy on keeping order in a low-crime corner of suburbia. Some can barely sleep. Little things trigger tears: a television show, a child's laughter, even the gifts in the police department sent from across the country.
One detective, driving with his wife and two sons by a roadside memorial two weeks after the shooting, began sobbing uncontrollably. ''I just lost it right there, I couldn't even drive,'' said the detective, Jason Frank.
Officer Willam Chapman was in the Newtown police station along with Officer McGowan and other officers when the first reports of shots and breaking glass came in. The school was more than two miles away, past the center of Sandy Hook. ''We drove as fast as we've ever driven,'' Officer McGowan said.
They made it in under three minutes, arriving as gunfire could still be heard.
''I got out of the car and grabbed my rifle, and it stopped for a second,'' Officer Chapman said. ''But then we heard more popping. You could tell it was rifle fire. And it was up so close it sounded like it was coming from outside. So we were all looking around for someone to shoot back at.''
As the officers converged on the building, the gunfire stopped - permanently. Officer Chapman and Scott Smith, a fellow officer, made their way to the front entrance. Minutes earlier, a rail-thin 20-year-old named Adam Lanza, armed with a Bushmaster assault rifle, two semiautomatic pistols and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, had blasted his way through the glass, defeating the security system.
The halls were familiar to Officer McGowan. He had attended the school as a child. But now they were eerily silent. ''The teachers were doing a phenomenal job keeping their kids quiet,'' Officer Chapman said.
The officers turned their radios down. They entered the front lobby and saw the bodies of Dawn Hochsprung, the principal, and Mary Sherlach, the school psychologist.
''You saw them lifeless, laying down,'' recalled Leonard Penna, a resource officer who raced to the scene from Newtown Middle School. ''For a split second, your mind says could this be a mock crime scene, could this be fake, but in the next split second, you're saying, there is no way. This is real.''
The officers went room to room, urgently hunting for the shooter. They found a wounded teacher in a room, made sure her co-workers were applying proper first aid, and moved on.
As officers Chapman and Smith approached another classroom, they spotted a rifle on the floor. Inside, they found Mr. Lanza dead, along with the bodies of several children and adults.
The officers scoured the room for any other gunmen, then searched for signs of life among the children. One little girl had a pulse and was breathing. Officer Chapman cradled her in his arms and ran her outside to an ambulance. Officer Chapman, a parent himself, recalled saying, '''You're safe now, your parents love you.'' She did not survive.
Most bodies were found in another classroom next door, where ''the teacher had them huddled up like a mother hen,'' Detective Frank recalled. ''Simple as that, in a corner.''
Officer Penna found a girl standing alone amid the bodies. She appeared in shock and was covered in blood but was uninjured. Not knowing the shooter was dead, Officer Penna first told her to stay put. Once he knew, he returned to the girl, grabbed her by the arm and ran her out to a triage area in the parking lot.
As state troopers poured in, the officers began evacuating children still locked down. Many of the teachers, trying to protect their pupils, and following their own training, refused to open.
''We're kicking the doors, yelling police, police,'' Officer McGowan said. ''We were ripping our badges off and putting them up to the window.''
Detective Frank, who had been off duty and rushed to the scene so fast he had to borrow a gun from a colleague, remembers ripping the handles off one of the doors, ''just trying to get through.''
As the children emerged, the officers tried to reassure them. ''Everything is fine now,'' they said, even as they kept guard for a second shooter. ''Everybody hold hands, close your eyes.''
Some officers formed a human curtain around Ms. Hochsprung and Ms. Sherlach's bodies to shield them from the children's view. Others blocked the doorways of the two classrooms.
Officers standing guard outside warned newly arriving colleagues not to go in if they had children. Detective Joe Joudy, an elder on the force, spotted Officer Chapman covered in blood. ''I was a mess, and he looks at me and says 'they gotta get you guys out of here.''
Detective Joudy, Detective Frank and Dan McAnaspie, Newtown's three-man detective squad, would spend much of the next week working with the state police to inventory every bit of evidence.
''Words can't describe how horrible it was,'' said Detective Joudy, who has been with the department 27 years.
More than one month later, the officers continue to feel the pain. Some spoke reluctantly, not wanting to compare their torment with the agony of the families of the victims, but they also worried about their ability to do their jobs.
They left out some details out of sensitivity to the victims and to protect the investigation as it continues.
At least one officer, Tom Bean, said he has already been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He said he has been unable to return to work, and has needed medication to sleep.
''I can't go into big department stores by myself,'' said Officer Bean, who is married with two sons, 8 and 9. ''I get panic attacks.''
For Detective Frank, the images keep recurring, not just of the children, but of little things. The backpack that was identical to his 6-year-old's, the Christmas ornaments unfinished on craft tables.
''It's heartbreaking,'' he said. ''These kids will never take those ornaments home to their parents.''