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'You feel helpless': First responders rushed to school after shooting, only to wait

NEWTOWN, Conn. – Emergency medical services responders in this “volunteer town” were having an ordinary day on Friday, getting ready to go Christmas shopping, waiting in line at the post office or hanging out at home on the crisp fall morning when the call came in: Their skills were needed at Sandy Hook Elementary.

More than 20 members of the Newtown Volunteer Ambulance Corps and two of its rigs rushed to the scene of what was first described simply as a “shooting in the building,” but quickly escalated to reports of a gunman -- or possibly two -- at large on the school grounds and gunfire, lots of gunfire.

They quickly set up primary and secondary triage sites, preparing to receive the wounded. But as other ambulances from neighboring communities rolled up, sirens blaring, the first responders slowly realized that their training would be tragically underutilized on this horrible day.

Only a few of the wounded were brought out for stabilizing treatment and then whisked off to the hospital. Everyone else among the 20 children and six adults who were shot had been killed by what turned out to be a single gunman – now identified as 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who committed suicide at the end of the rampage.

“We're waiting there with a triage area set up to take care of all of these patients ... and when the call came over the radio to release all of these ambulances from surrounding towns and just hold the Newtown ambulances at the scene, that was when I think it hit most of us that our services were not going to be utilized at that point,” James Wolff, a 44-year-old EMT who responded to the mass shooting, told NBC News on Wednesday.

“Seeing the faces on the other side of the (police) scene tape and the emotion on those faces was, it was difficult to see and especially because we weren't in action doing things trying to save people,” said Wolff, a father of two who joined the town’s volunteer ambulance company 18 months ago. “You may not be able to save everybody, but you damn well try. And when (we) didn't have the opportunity to put our skills into action, it's difficult.”

But Assistant Chief Sharon McCarthy said the first responders found other ways to contribute.

“You feel helpless, I think, but yet we were there,” said McCarthy, who spent six hours at the scene and was the last member of her team to leave. “Police are there, the parents are there. We're trying to help them and reassuring people and just trying to be there. I mean, you know, the parents were victims, too.”

“There was an anxious, chaotic crowd and we were trying to keep peace there,” she added. “It was really controlling the scene was what we were working on.”

Laurie Veillette, a volunteer EMT who was leaving the post office when she saw the police cars zoom by moments before receiving the call to duty, said she was assigned to the secondary triage area in the parking lot of the nearby fire station, where unharmed schoolchildren who were evacuated waited to be picked up by their parents.

“We were there while events were still unfolding and we received patients and left,” she said. “I got a text from my daughter on the ambulance on the way back and she said people were saying, 'People are dying there mommy, are you all right?' ... She asked me if I was there and I said, 'I am.' And I said, 'It's bad, and I can't talk about it.'”

Veillette and other EMTs at the scene weren't getting any information from radio or television, but she said they sensed the enormity of what had happened.

“To get that text from her, I knew that it had gotten bigger and it was big,” she said.

Veillette, who said she had worked in past years as a substitute teacher at Sandy Hook, said the loss of so many young children and the professionals who cared for them hit even those used to dealing with death hard.

Some of her fellow EMT workers didn't watch the news reports in the immediate aftermath, and they spoke to counselors brought in to handle the “raw emotion” that was coming out, Veillette said.

“The loss of faces in town,” she said, trying to explain the powerful impact the tragedy has had. “It's just a huge loss that touched so many people, but then again, you know, it brought us together. … it's such a mixed emotion. I mean I feel such love and support but at the same time, our community is missing too many people right now.”

Jill Urciuoli, a 58-year-old EMT who also responded that day, said she had spent some time “just trying to figure out what happened, rework everything, see if there was a way I could have done something differently.”

But then she surrendered to the strong emotions coursing through this tight-knit community.

“Grief is grief,” she said. “Everybody feels it. Everybody's heart is ripped out. You don't even need to see it, you feel it ... it hurts.”

McCarthy said that even before the tragedy, a medical call was handled with a small-town approach by the 69-member EMT team, who range in age from 18 to 72. When EMTs had to transport people to the hospital, patients would often hold their hands or pinch their cheeks. And if reassurance was all that was needed, McCarthy said she had occasionally brewed tea and sat down to comfort a nervous resident.

She called the job the second-most challenging and rewarding thing she has done, after parenthood. “This group of people has more heart than you can imagine,” she said.

Mike Collins, a volunteer since 2005, proudly called Newtown a "volunteer town," with five volunteer fire departments in service, too. 

As he stood in the ambulance bay at the corps' post on Main St. -- where a sign posted outside reads, "Still united, we are Newtown strong!" -- Wolff said the shootings have already had a “rippling” effect, noting that his children, a son, 12, and daughter, 15, were openly worrying about him and his wife, who is a teacher in another school district.

“Our kids are now thinking, 'OK, what happens to mom, what happens to dad when they go do what they do," he said, noting that his daughter had pleaded in a text message on Friday after she heard about the shootings, "Daddy don't go."

Wolff also responded later Friday to the home of the alleged shooter's mother, Nancy Lanza, located on a normally quiet residential street that was then flooded with police cruisers, the FBI and the media, among others. Police suspect Nancy was also shot to death by her son at the beginning of the still-unexplained massacre.

Wolff said he arrived in disbelief at the scene, and said the community was just beginning to process what happened.

“We just can't even imagine the long-term feelings and implications,” he said, adding that someone told him this was “Newtown's 9/11. It's kind of on that order of magnitude, for a smaller number of people.”

"This is something that is going to take us a long time to work through. It's all still very raw right now," he said. "But … we are a strong community, we have come together. I think we'll continue to come together and support each other."

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