Newtown tapes released amidst controversy

Some fear that the release of 911 calls from the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting will reopen wounds of grief and loss in Newtown.
Some fear that the release of 911 calls from the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting will reopen wounds of grief and loss in Newtown. Photo by Brianne Bowen .

The 911 calls made from Sandy Hook Elementary School on the morning of Dec. 14, 2012 were made public Wednesday, providing a unique glimpse into the panic gripping the school’s faculty and students that morning.

Despite widespread concern that making these calls accessible to the public would do more harm than good, Connecticut Superior Court Judge Eliot Prescott mandated their release in a ruling last week. Tapes of the calls were distributed online Wednesday afternoon.

The first calls to the Newtown Police Department came in at 9:35 a.m., less than one minute after the gunman, Adam Lanza, forced himself into the locked school building by firing through its doors. By 9:39 a.m., the first Newtown Police Department officer had arrived at the scene, roughly one minute before Lanza committed suicide, ending one of the deadliest school shootings in American history.

“I caught a glimpse of somebody, they are running down the hallway,” the woman who placed the first emergency phone call said, out of breath. “Oh, they’re still running, they’re still shooting! Sandy Hook, please!”

This frantic call for help was the first in a series of six tapes released, revealing the fear and anguish of those trapped inside the school, as dispatchers worked to rapidly mobilize aid while reassuring the callers. Together, the recordings run to a total of about 18 minutes long, and two of the calls contain audible gunshots in the background.

One caller, a custodian who identified himself as Rick Thorne, said he knew something was going on because a window had been shattered near the front of the school, and gunshots were audible in the background. Thorne remained on the line for several minutes, detailing what he was witnessing at the school.

“I believe they’re shooting at the front glass. Something’s going on,” Thorne said, as a dispatcher ordered “everyone” down to the school and gathered information about the scene. “I keep hearing shooting, I keep hearing popping.”

Another caller said that she was in a classroom and had been shot in the foot. Like most others working the calls in the recordings, the dispatcher reassured the woman that help was on the way, telling her to keep pressure on the wound.

The recordings also include a call from a female teacher in a classroom with her students, who was instructed to lock her doors and keep away from windows.

“Lock the door. Keep everybody calm, keep everybody down,” a dispatcher instructed the teacher.

Prescott’s decision to release the tapes was made in an effort to comply with federal rights to information and to clarify the work done by dispatchers and first responders during the chaotic episode, according to court documents filed by the Superior Court, New Britain Judicial District.

“There is no dispute in this case that the audio recordings of the 911 calls made from Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012 are public records within the Freedom of Information Act,” Prescott’s ruling states.

In September, the state’s Freedom of Information Commission pushed for the recordings to be released to the Associated Press. But State Attorney Stephen Sedensky III applied to prevent their release, arguing that making the recordings public might put witnesses at risk and cause families greater anguish. When Prescott announced the decision, Sedensky said he would not appeal the ruling.

“After consultation with the office of the chief state’s attorney and the attorney for the town of Newtown who is a party to the appeal in the Superior Court, we have decided not to pursue an appeal on the denial of the application for a stay,” Sedensky said in a statement.

The release of the recordings was met by harsh criticism by First Selectwoman of Newtown Pat Llodra, who, in a personal blog post on Wednesday morning, expressed doubt that releasing the tapes would reap any positive results.

“Hearing those calls takes us back to a day of horror and tragedy,” she wrote. “My plea is for the media to treat us kindly … to recognize that there is great personal pain in this event and little public good to be garnered through the general release.

A report detailing Lanza’s personal life was released on Nov. 25.

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