AUGUSTA, Maine — Lt. Christopher Vanghele of the Newtown (Conn.) Police Department was attending law enforcement training in Rhode Island on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012.
“I remember officers in the room talking about school shootings and how to prepare for it,” Vanghele said. “I remember making the comment, ‘We don’t do much training for it.’”
The next day, 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot his way through the entrance of Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School and opened fire with a .223-caliber semi-automatic rifle. During a five-minute shooting spree, 20 children ages 6 and 7 and six of their teachers were killed. Lanza then shot himself with a Glock 10 mm handgun. He had killed his mother at home earlier in the day.
Vanghele was among the first three officers who went to the scene of the shooting and was the incident commander on scene until Connecticut State Police assumed control.
Vanghele and another Newtown police officer, Jeff Silver, on Tuesday recounted their agency’s response to the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting to an audience of emergency management and response professionals gathered at the Augusta Civic Center for the Maine Emergency Management Agency’s annual Preparedness Conference.
While the Newtown Police Department hadn’t prepared extensively for a school shooting, Vanghele said, officers had trained for situations involving active shooters. That training was influenced by the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado.
“We don’t wait for SWAT teams to show up. Our job is just to go in,” Vanghele said. “I didn’t think it was ever going to happen in Newtown, but I thought, ‘I’m just going to go in.’”
Vanghele, a 20-year Newtown Police Department veteran, relied on that training when he and the first officers on scene ran into the school through a side door, listening for shots so they would know where to go.
“I knew that I had to grab my two cops, we had to put a rifle in front, and we just had to go, go forward,” he said. “If I didn’t know how to do that, I would probably have been paralyzed with fear. I would not have known what to do.
“You could smell the gunpowder immediately,” he said. “Then, you start seeing bodies. As soon as we had gotten on scene, [Lanza] had killed himself already, which I know saved lives.”
The scene quickly became chaotic, Vanghele said. Initially, there was suspicion the shooter was lurking outside the school, though the person outside the school turned out to be a parent.
“Parents were showing up at the school because they were supposed to build gingerbread houses that day,” he said.
Within minutes, officers from the state police, FBI, ATF, U.S. Marshals Service and other agencies arrived on scene. Responders set up a triage area outside the school doors. Others set up an area at a nearby fire station where parents reunited with their children. And they cordoned off a designated area for the news media.
Silver, a Newtown officer since 1999, headed up operations at the Police Department’s emergency operations center, which transformed quickly from an emergency response center into an investigative operations center. Investigators from a number of agencies set up shop at the center, combing social media websites for clues. A judge was on hand to sign off on search warrants.
Meanwhile, Vanghele was among the officers who discovered a teacher and a group of students hiding in a classroom closet.
“She didn’t want to come out,” he said. “She didn’t believe we were cops. I put my badge underneath the door, and finally she came out, handed me a child.”
It wasn’t until after the shooting that the realization hit Vanghele and other Newtown police that the response to the disaster didn’t end the day of the shooting.
“The incident alone is a relatively short amount of time,” he said. “It’s how you move forward as an agency in the aftermath as an entire town is grieving.”
Newtown police received an outpouring of support from agencies in neighboring communities. They relied on those officers to direct traffic and handle logistics as funerals for the victims began.
“That was a huge help to us, not only logistically, but mentally as well,” Vanghele said.
The town also overflowed with members of the news media. Having a well-trained public information officer on hand was critical, Vanghele said.
In the days that followed, the nation’s attention focused on Newtown. President Barack Obama visited town. Gifts poured in from across the country, including 63,000 stuffed animals for Newtown police, overwhelming the local mail center.
“There is generosity fatigue,” Vanghele said. “It’s nice when people are nice to you. It’s nice to also have people step back.”
Newtown police also received calls, letters and other communications from conspiracy theorists. They received calls from people personally threatening Newtown officers. They had to address false Facebook pages created to collect donations.
And they had to deal with the political fallout as protesters set up shop in town and dozens of events were organized to memorialize the victims.
“That’s a practical part of having to manage the aftermath of something like this,” Vanghele said. “You’re going to be spread thin at the same time you’re already grieving or going through some of the trauma from what you saw.”