Cuddly toys bear witness to shooting town's sorrow
NEWTOWN, Connecticut - Garfield was there. So was Dipsy from Teletubbies. But far and away, it was the teddy bears that outnumbered -- by the hundreds -- all the others.
Braving a cold drizzle, mourners trekked all day Sunday to the entrance of Sandy Hook Elementary School to add to an ever-expanding menagerie of soft toys in memory of the 20 pupils and six educators killed in Friday's shooting spree.
"All of us feel compelled to keep coming up here," said law student Samantha Wong, 23, after she placed a little white rabbit onto the branches of one of the many Christmas trees that went up overnight by the school driveway.
Wong told AFP she had dozens of stuffed toys, some from her childhood, that she and her friends would be giving up in memory of the victims of one of the worst mass shootings in US history.
Some would find their place outside the school, she said. Others will go to any one of the many makeshift shrines that have popped up all over Newtown, an affluent community of 27,500 about 90 minutes from New York City.
And still more toys are being collected, Wong said, to distribute to children around town whose parents are wrestling with how to explain Friday's horror to boys and girls just learning how to read and write.
One such parent was Patricia Dimasi from nearby Southbury, Connecticut. She has yet to tell her five-year-old the real reason why he won't be going to kindergarten on Monday.
"He doesn't know," she told AFP. "When he came home (Friday) on the school bus, I asked the bus driver (if the children knew about the shooting) and she said they did not."
Dimasi's husband planned to visit the kindergarten Monday to determine whether it was safe for the boy to return, but in the meantime, Dimasi said she has been unable to sleep since Friday.
"I'm thinking always of the families" of the slain first-grade pupils, she said, clutching a toy lamb that a stranger gave her out of kindness to give to her son. "What are they feeling now?"
A six-year-old named MiaLise, ignoring her father's instructions not to talk to a reporter, brought a toy as well to put alongside the dozen glass-enclosed candles that her family and friends were lighting as dusk fell.
"Somebody gave me that bear," she said, adding that "it feels good" to contribute to the shrine.
Nearby, a young girl in a lavender winter coat hugged a white teddy bear in one hand and her mother with the other, saying nothing as they gazed together at the toys, trees, flowers and handwritten messages of sympathy.
In the background, walkie-talkies squawked in the hands of volunteer firefighters in yellow coats, and convoys of police vehicles -- one including a Connecticut state police armored car -- entered or exited the school grounds.
Down the hill from Sandy Hook Elementary School, another shrine by the neighborhood Christmas tree was festooned with toys, including a pair of matching teddy bears with two-for-$20 price tags still on their ears.
Caught in the traffic snarl was a truck with an illuminated billboard on its side, flashing Yuletide images of the Virgin Mary and the birth of Jesus Christ along with words of condolences.
Elsewhere in Newtown, a gift shop laid out crayons and paper for passers-by to "send a prayer to heaven."
Taped to the window of a fashionable dress shop, alongside glamorous figure-hugging sequined Christmas gowns, read a handwritten sign: "Love will see us through."
© 1994-2012 Agence France-Presse