Survivors, Responders, Volunteers, Officials Gather To Open Sandy Hook Memorial
Approximately 200 people including dozens of immediate survivors of those killed on 12/14 came together on the site of a newly opened Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial for a brief, reverent invitation-only ceremony November 12, a day ahead of the memorial’s public opening.
With First Selectman Dan Rosenthal officiating and former First Selectman and memorial committee member Pat Llodra watching from among the invited officials, attendees heard brief remarks from Governor Ned Lamont, Memorial Committee Vice Chair Alan Martin, and a heart-stirring reading from commission colleague JoAnn Bacon whose daughter Charlotte was among the victims of the December 14, 2012 tragedy.
The memorial is at 32 Riverside Road. A granite marker with the words Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial marks its entrance, which carries visitors south over a short driveway from Riverside before they reach a small parking lot with room for approximately 20 vehicles. The parking lot offers a look over the memorial, which is set down a hill and accessed from a gently sloping path from the western side of the parking lot.
As a quartet of young musicians including NHS Music Director Michelle Hiscavich concluded their pre-event selections, the program opened with a moment of silence in memory of those lost. Rosenthal also took a moment to recognize the late Robert Mitchall, an architect and chairman of the local Public Building and Site Commission, who was instrumental in shepherding the memorial’s development before his untimely passing in October 2021.
Before and between speakers, the first selectman recited the names of each of the 20 children and six educators who were lost on that fateful morning nearly 10 years ago, while taking the opportunity to recognize and thank many of the hundreds of other individuals who helped conceive, design, refine, and deliver the project to completion.
Among those attending were dozens of immediate family members, former colleagues, and friends of the 26 victims, most of the Newtown Statehouse Delegation, members of the Boards of Selectmen, Finance, the Legislative Council, current public building and site commissioners, many volunteer responders from the Newtown Police Department, Volunteer Ambulance Corps, Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue, representatives of other local volunteer fire departments, memorial commission members, and as other volunteers and supporters.
Rosenthal also pointed out principals of the memorial’s design team.
“Dan Affleck and Ben Waldo created a beautiful and inviting memorial and helped to bring it to completion,” Rosenthal said. “Dan and Ben visited regularly from California as the project took shape and dealt with my occasional barking.”
He also recognized local award-winning designer Tara Vincenta from Artemis Landscape.
“Tara visited the site near daily and literally laid out every plant and tree to make sure they appeared at their best,” the first selectman noted.
“I also want to recognize Downes Construction and its president, Dave Patrick and the Memorial construction team of Jeff Anderson, John Fraoli, Mike Dell’Accio and Jason Smith,” he added. “Mike served as the project manager and Jason as the site superintendent. Jason was here daily and I am grateful to the love and care he gave to the site.
“More than anything I am grateful to all the families for entrusting us with this project,” the first selectman said. “Given that we are here 10 years later I’m sure at times there were doubts as to if we would get it built. I know I speak for everyone that touched this project in some way, shape or form that it was truly an honor to be a part of something so important.”
Next to come to the podium was Bacon, whose touching and powerful words are detailed in their entirety below.
During his remarks, Martin quickly recapped some of the work and challenges that faced the memorial commission over his nine years of service.
“I’ve never served with a more dedicated group of people,” he said of his commission colleagues. “We’ve been in town for over 50 years, I’ve had the pleasure of serving on many boards and many commissions, but we’ve never had such a dedicated group of people, and I’m truly honored to be part of that.”
When reflecting on the 17 sites the commission considered and reviewed, Martin recalled the location eventually chosen was the first the commission viewed. And after narrowing down the options to a select few, he remembered the day commission members revisited the Riverside Road parcel and former home to the SAC ballfields.
“It was a balmy fall day, much like today,” he said, “and we heard children playing. We were very touched hearing those angels, and we said this has got to be the site.”
Lamont remarked that he was touched by Martin’s recollection of the children’s voices.
“We can still hear that,” the governor said. Turning to reflect on Bacon’s reading and the lives lost on 12/14, Lamont noted, “We grieve together ... we grieve as an immediate family, and we grieve as an extended family, as your extended family. I think it’s really important to continue to remember what happened ten years ago.”
The governor also pointed out the sycamore tree that serves as the central focal point of the memorial.
“It’s a reminder that out of this grief, there is some rebirth as evidenced by the tree, and as evidenced by the fact that this is a town that came together, a state that came together, and I look at other tragedies, and we remember these tragedies and somehow we rally together as one and we move forward.
“I’m so proud of what Sandy Hook and Newtown has been able to do to resurrect this, and to bring this life, this spirit and this energy, and to bring some hope along with the truth and the grief,” Lamont concluded. “I’d like to think that’s what this day is about — and today of all days, we share in that grief and we share in that hope.”
At the conclusion of the program, families of those lost who were present collected small hand-crafted fresh flower wreaths adorned with battery candles and moved down the pathway toward the memorial, where many of them released the arrangements into the continuously circulating water pool while greeting other guests, many who were seeing the site for the first time.
Reflections Of Guests
Following the pre-opening ceremony, The Newtown Bee reached out to a number of those in attendance for their reactions, which are detailed as follows:
Francine Wheeler, whose son, Ben, was a victim on 12/14: “The memorial is quite beautiful, and we’re really proud of the commission, and particularly the family members on the commission who helped make this so beautiful. The families are the true heart of this memorial project. I also appreciated the town’s involvement, and those who took the time to make it thoughtful. This is a memorial that the families share with the community and all who were affected by the tragedy. It’s a reminder to those who come from Newtown and those who don’t that these people lived — and we’ll never ever forget them because this [memorial] exists, and it is a reminder that the nation grieved with us by having the Obama quote. I think it’s a statement from Newtown that we are grateful for all the support we’ve gotten from around the world, and this is for all of us.”
Memorial Commission Chair Dan Krauss: “I thought that yesterday’s dedication was beautiful, touching and it was so meaningful to see everyone down at the memorial. Watching the families and other guests around the pond brought the memorial to life. After 9+ years of hard work it was incredible to see the memorial grow from renderings to a living breathing memorial that honors and remembers those killed on 12/14 and also looks to the future with a flourishing sycamore tree. I hope that the memorial is a place to remember those killed on 12/14 and also a place for everyone who needs a place of solitude for private reflection. I was truly honored to have been selected to participate in this important undertaking.
Memorial Committee member and designer Agni Pavlidou Kyprianou: “I visited the memorial site during early construction and in a way I am glad I didn’t get to see it again until Saturday. To walk at the edge of the higher plane and take it all in, to see it completed, was an experience I can’t describe. So many overwhelming emotions rushed in. The one which was clearly stronger than the rest though was the feeling of peace. A peaceful and serene site bowing to its surroundings, humble, respectful, giving you the impression it has always been there, it belonged there. For the victims and their families, for our town, it is my hope this place serves as a reminder of everything in life that matters the most.”
Selectman Ed Schierloh: “I would just like to express my deepest thanks to the memorial committee for the hard work, dedication, and compassion in the construction of the memorial. The dedication of the memorial was very well done reflecting on the tragedy that affected all of us. The memorial will remain a place of quiet refuge and a remembrance of those who were lost.”
Nicole Hockley, whose son Dylan was a victim on 12/14 and co-founder & CEO of Sandy Hook Promise: “I wasn’t sure what feelings to expect going to see the memorial for the first time this weekend. I’m glad I went. I thought JoAnn Bacon’s remarks were superb and captured both the exquisite beauty and pain that coexist in the memorial and in us as we continue to grieve, as families and as a community. I love Dylan’s playground and the 26 stars on the firehouse, but this memorial is different. There was such a permanence in seeing Dylan’s name carved in granite that it overwhelmed me. Overall, I was struck by the natural beauty of the site, and the obvious care and thoughtfulness that went into the design. The sycamore tree, with its symbolism, is the perfect focal point. The way it stood tall with so many green leaves while all the trees around it were bare, was beautiful to behold.”
Pat Llodra, former first selectman and Memorial Commission member: "I can say without hesitation that serving on this commission has been most rewarding and significant. I was honored and humbled to be among these commission members, including three parents of loss. Their focus, dedication, patience, and commitment over these long years brought us to the outcome we all witnessed this Saturday with the private opening of the memorial site. The natural beauty of the site and the careful, quiet, and respectful elegance of the design seemed to be received with appreciation and reverence. I couldn’t help but feel a little overwhelmed, grateful for the positive outcome, thankful that families of loss found the memorial as a gentle honor for their lost loved one, but at the same time deeply sad for those young people and caring adults lost to violence on that fateful day almost 10 years ago. I suppose that mix of emotions is exactly what such a memorial is designed to evoke — gratefulness for its very existence but sadness that it has to exist at all.”
Tricia Pinto, a Memorial Commission member whose son, Jack, was a victim on 12/14: “There are so many people to thank who were an integral part in making this memorial happen. Everyone who worked on this project did so with compassion and true reverence as to what this memorial represents. I hope that is felt by visitors. I would also add to that list a big thank you to Jackie and Mary at Newtown Florist for their patience, generosity and creativity. They worked with us in helping create 26 beautiful floating candle wreaths — one for each family to place in the water at the private dedication ceremony.
“While the memorial is a beautiful and peaceful place, and something that I am proud to have been a part of, it is something that I wish wasn’t here,” Pinto continued. “My hope is that the community and people who visit the site will find it to be a place of beauty and reflection but also know that it was born from a place of tragedy and loss. The beauty of the memorial does not replace the lives that were lost on that horrible day and each name etched in the stone of the surrounding water feature represents a life that was loved, a life that is missed and a life that 26 families grieve for every day. “
State Rep Mitch Bolinsky of Newtown: “I love the site, it’s quiet, inviting and feels peaceful. So much work and heart went into the creation of this extraordinarily beautiful memorial. My first reaction was one of peace and quiet. It’s a place one can be alone with their thoughts and emotions, or choose to share a respectful, quiet moment of reflection with others. It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly ten years since the awful day. I remember it like yesterday. We all grieve in our own personal ways, unbound by time. My hope is that this lovely memorial is that it always be a welcoming place for all to continue their healing. God Bless our 26 Angels of Sandy Hook, their families and their loved ones.”
Selectman Maureen Crick Owen: “I am proud of what First Selectman Rosenthal and all those involved with this memorial accomplished. It was done with love for those lost on 12/14, their families and our community. It is a beautiful memorial and a place for us all to reflect.”
Legislative Council member Ryan Knapp: “This has been a long time coming and I am glad to see the permanent memorial dedicated and opened. Many people put in countless hours to make this happen, and it was not a typical project for so many reasons. With the fencing down the site really opens up and you can see the existing ponds which incorporate nicely into the overall design. I found myself looking forward, imagining it as the trees grow in and the perennial vegetation establishes itself, what this dynamic memorial will look like in 5, 10, even 50 years. I really appreciate that it does make you think about the future as well as the past. I returned Sunday and found a steady flow of people stopping by to visit, to walk the paths and to sit and reflect. Seeing it being used as intended really affirmed that the Permanent Memorial Commission got this right.”
Memorial Commission member Sarah Middeleer: “I was very moved on Saturday — seeing the families assembled together; joining with them, as well as fellow commission members and others in shared acknowledgement of the event’s magnitude; and seeing the memorial that so many of us there that day had worked so hard on. As difficult as it was sometimes, in the end we were unanimous in our selection of the SWA design. I truly believe that we all valued the opportunity to take part in this important endeavor and also that we all valued working with one another. My memories of the setting are of beauty and grace. The centerpiece of the memorial, the sycamore in its circular pool, shone in the sun. The flowers and candles floated in the sparkling water. The plantings are wonderful, and they will be even more beautiful as they mature in future seasons. Altogether I was proud of the memorial but mostly pleased for the families who now have a place to visit, honoring their loved ones.”
State Senator Tony Hwang: “I was overwhelmed by the emotion seeing immediate family members and viewing the 26 names carved into the circular monument surrounded by natural beauty on a reflection pool of water centered with a Sycamore tree symbolizing regeneration, strength, protection, eternity, and divinity. It was cathartic but heavy with emotion and a mission of remembrance and healing. The many pathways to the memorial was intended as a metaphor that everyone has different pathways to mental health healing and moving forward from that tragic trauma nearly 10 years ago. The memorial was a reflection of the utmost respect and sensitivity of Newtown leaders and the tireless work of the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial Commission.”
Police Chief David Kullgren: “The men and women of the Newtown Police Department were honored to provide a calm and safe environment for the families and guests, and we will continue to monitor the site 24/7 to ensure it is secure. We were also proud to coordinate with the Public Works, Parks and Rec, Sandy Hook Fire and Rescue personnel, and the Governor’s detail. Now that the site is open, we look forward to everyone’s cooperation following the site etiquette set forth by the Memorial Commission out of respect for the victims and their families.”
Inspiring Words From JoAnn Bacon
The following is the unedited text of JoAnn Bacon's reading from the November 12 Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial ceremony:
The grieving in Newtown continues. Ten years on, and the grieving continues. We grieve lost years and lost memories. We grieve the joyful enthusiasm that once came quickly. We grieve the future we had planned. We grieve not being able to watch our beloved evolve. We grieve our loss of safety. But just as important, our love for those who died continues to grow in unexpected ways — a true love story filled with evolving emotions, trajectories, and dynamics.
One does not need two feet on this earth for a love story to continue. Love does not wither away or become stagnant due to absence. It grows strong just as the Sycamore tree behind me grows strong.
The Sycamore is a hardy tree with a reputation for its ability to withstand punishment. Punishment, yes. Living with the horror of December 14th is punishing. But also, the sycamore has long been a symbol of love, protection, and fertility. The wood of its trunk is one of the most desired for carving. For ten years, 26 families have been lovingly carving and wielding wood. They are transforming it to reflect their beloved and find a way forward. Always Loving. Always Protecting. Always Fertilizing.
The winding paths of this memorial are intentional. They represent grief’s unique personality. Whether done privately or publicly, it will present differently for everyone, even within families. Our personalities, experiences and relationships with the dead guide how we grieve, but the most fundamental need is the same. To hear the name of our beloved on the lips of others. Remembrance allows those left behind to keep their loved ones in the present rather than relegate them to the past.
Twenty-six families actively grieve and remember each day in seen and unseen ways. From charitable acts to the unseen whispered “I love you” invoked by a favorite song, a whiff of their shampoo, or the sight of a bird, feather, or leaf in the shape of a heart. A memorial does not negate the need for families to remember their loved ones as individuals — each equal but unique. Yet there is also no denying that we are held together by a violent act. This memorial serves as a remembrance for the whole world.
Some may see this memorial as an endpoint where they can leave the past in the past. But I see it as a mile marker. A mile marker where we can look behind and see where we have been and then look forward to the direction of where we need to go. For many, December 14, 2012, was one of the darkest days in modern American history as a community and as a nation. Yet Humans will often disconnect from history that they cannot reconcile.
Instead, we see mass violence denied or summed up with simple slogans neglecting to recognize the dichotomy of what is being promoted. Slapping a mantra on something is easy. Living its truth is another matter. If we are Newtown Strong, then we are also Newtown Broken. If there is triumph, then there is suffering. All need representation. What do we learn if we hold only what feels good and turn our backs on what we fear?
We need to do more than choose kindness, love, and compassion. We need to choose truth. Memorials demand that we are grounded in truth. It is a necessary truth-teller. And the truth of Sandy Hook Elementary School is down this hill in a ring that bears 26 names. They are our truth. And we owe them our reverence. This memorial is a beacon for remembrance, and it is a beacon for truth.
In the coming weeks, this memorial will be a communal place many come to remember. Let this be a place to still their minds, adjust priorities, reflect on what they know and accept that there is no understanding. But most importantly, let them remember those not given the same opportunities.
For 26 families, this memorial does not quiet our grief. If anything, a visual of the magnitude adds heaviness to what is already difficult to carry. Continued grace and compassion are needed as our families face the reckoning of violence and its impact on our families. A reckoning that will live with us forever. The grieving in Newtown continues. And yet, through the grief and pain, our love stories grow strong like the Sycamore.
Editor John Voket can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.