911 Tapes of Sandy Hook Massacre Released

2:25 PM, Dec 4, 2013   |    comments
Police tape is viewed outside of the entrance to the Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 15, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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Gary Stoller and Gary Strauss , USA TODAY

NEWTOWN, Conn. - Emergency dispatchers at the Newton Police Department warned a panicked teacher to protect herself and her students, urged another staffer to apply pressure to a gunshot wound to her leg and told the school custodian to take cover as the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre unraveled.

The advice came via 911 exchanges between school staffers and 911 dispatchers minutes after gunman Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 students and six staffers with a semi-automatic assault rifle before taking his own life. Earlier that day, Lanza, 20, shot his mother, Nancy, at their Newtown home.

Tapes of the 911 calls were released Wednesday afternoon, nearly a year after the Dec.14 massacre rocked this genteel community.

On the tapes, custodian Rick Thorne tells dispatchers that he "keeps hearing popping noises'' before he's warned to take cover. On another call, an unidentified teacher says "it sounds like there are gunshots in the hallway." A dispatcher tells her to ''keep everyone calm, keep everyone down, keep everyone from the windows."

The unidentified wounded teacher is asked "Are you okay right now?" and responds; "For now, hopefully."

The 911 calls underscore the chaos and confusion that occurred on the morning of the shootings. But like the report released last week by the Connecticut State Attorney's Office that chronicled the shooting spree and provided chilling details about Lanza's troubled, isolated life, the tapes provide no motive for his actions or why the Sandy Hook school was targeted.

Newtown and state officials had fought release of the tapes - which include a 10-minute call by school custodian Rick Thorne and six others - to protect victims and families.

But a state judge ruled that the recordings should be made public. "Delaying the release of the audio recordings, particularly where the legal justification to keep them confidential is lacking, only serves to fuel speculation about and undermine confidence in our law enforcement officials, " said New Britain Superior Court Judge Eliot Prescott.

Newtown school superintendent John Reed advised parents to limit media exposure to students.

Release of the tapes creates "a new layer of pain for many in the Newtown community," says Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra, the town's chief executive. "Hearing those calls takes us back to a day of horror and tragedy."

Richard Harwood of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation assisted Newtown residents following the shootings. Today's release of the 911 calls won't help a community that continues to grapple with closure, he says.

"I think it's going to be tormenting,'' Harwood says. "At each turn, the people of Newtown have been asked to relive this tragedy. Last week's state report, now this - it's a lot to handle."

The state's report said the first police officer arrived at the school within four minutes of the first 911 call - about one minute before Lanza shot himself.

"The calls are going to be gut-wrenching. My hope is that the folks in Newtown will be able work through yet another challenge,'' he says. "The healing process is on-going."

The Associated Press had fought for release of the tapes.

"We all understand why some people have strong feelings about the release of these tapes. This was a horrible crime," says AP executive editor Kathleen Carroll. "It's important to remember, though, that 911 tapes, like other police documents, are public records. Reviewing them is a part of normal newsgathering in a responsible news organization."

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