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In Grief-Stricken Newtown, Vigils And Support For Victims And Families

Hours after a Connecticut community was riven by a deadly gun assault on an elementary school's students and staff, residents reached out to support one another, and to grieve. Churches and public spaces became the settings for vigils, as the shocking murder of 20 children and six adults at the school echoed through Newtown, Conn.

And while many gatherings were based in Newtown, people elsewhere — across the nation, and on social networks — sought ways to mark the tragic event that today became one of the worst episodes of gun violence in U.S. history.

"Evil visited this community today," Gov. Daniel Malloy said at an afternoon news conference. "And it's too early to speak of recovery, but each parent, each sibling, each member of the family has to understand that... we're all in this together. We'll do whatever we can to overcome this event. We will get through it, but this is a terrible time for this community and these families."

In Newtown, the St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church held a mass this evening, and planned to stay open all evening for those wanting to pray. Trinity Episcopal Church on the town's Main Street planned a service of prayers and music. Other places of worship also held services and vigils; more were scheduled for Saturday.

"Our hearts are broken today," President Obama said at the White House, "for the parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers of these little children, and for the families of the adults who were lost. Our hearts are broken for the parents of the survivors as well, for as blessed as they are to have their children home tonight, they know that their children's innocence has been torn away from them too early. And there are no words that will ease their pain."

Reaction to the deadly attack also rippled on Twitter, where users sent messages based around hashtags like #Newtown and #prayfornewtown. They vented their frustrations and sorrow over the senseless killings; they offered their support and prayers to the town's residents; some posted images of their own makeshift memorials to the school's children and teachers.

And despite having sent only 100 tweets, Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Hochsprung drew the admiration and appreciation of many people who clicked through the photos she posted, almost all of them depicting daily life at her school. The images evoke Sandy Hook as a tidy building with happy students — and Hochsprung as being unabashedly proud of its gardening projects and community events such as a book fair and a Veteran's Day celebration.

A candlelight vigil was also held outside the White House, a gathering whose attendees were inspired by grief for the victims of Friday's attack, as well as an urge to call for more powerful gun control measures.

And on the White House's website, a "We the People" public petition was created Friday to call for "legislation that limits access to guns." By 8:40 p.m. ET, the petition had attracted more than 40,000 signatures. Petitions with similar messages also gained support.

The news of Friday's school violence resonated with victims of similar attacks, particularly at Virginia Tech, where 32 people were murdered in 2007, and Columbine High School, where 13 were killed in 1999.

Issuing a statement of support to Newtown's victims and their families, Joe Samaha, president of the Virginia Tech Victims Family Outreach Foundation, said, "we know that their loss is incredible. Helping all to deal with the aftermath will take a lifetime of love and dedication."

As Columbine Principal Frank DeAngelis told Colorado Public Radio, the lives of those in the Sandy Hook community will forever be changed.

"Unfortunately the elementary school in Connecticut now becomes a part of this club, a club that we know is tragedy, heartbreak," said DeAngelis, who began teaching at Columbine in 1979. "And no one wants to be a part of that club, but what we have to do — no one asked us to be a part of it — but now, how do we help each other?"

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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