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Fire chief details chaos after elementary school shooting

Posted on: 2:06 pm, December 19, 2012, by , updated on: 02:18pm, December 19, 2012

By Vivian Kuo, CNN

NEWTOWN, Connecticut (CNN) — Amid the chaos that first-responder Ray Corbo witnessed on Friday, there is one image that he will never forget.

It isn’t the woman who was taken to the hospital after being shot in the foot at Sandy Hook Elementary. It isn’t the police officer he saw leaving the school’s interior covered in someone’s blood.

What will haunt Corbo forever is the memory of parents lined up outside the firehouse just a few hundred feet away from the school, waiting to pick up their children.

“As the children were coming down the street, little by little, classroom by classroom all holding hands, parents were claiming their children,” says Corbo, the first assistant fire chief at Newtown Hook and Ladder No. 1. “After a little while, once they claimed their kid and signed them out … they left.

“There were some sticking around and that’s when we realized that they’re probably not going to be leaving. They’re gonna get the confirmation soon enough that they’re not gonna be grabbing their child and hugging them and taking them home.”

Corbo’s voice is steady, but his eyes glisten. “Their life is changed forever.”

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  • Connecticut State Police responded to reports of a shooting at a Newtown elementary school Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, in southwestern Connecticut, according to police spokesman.

  • Connecticut State Police responded to reports of a shooting at a Newtown elementary school Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, in southwestern Connecticut, according to police spokesman.

  • Connecticut State Police and local authorities are responding to a shooting at an elementary school in southwestern Connecticut on Friday, December 14, 2012, officials said. S Sandy Hook Elementary School is on lock down, and students are not being evacuated, a Newtown police spokesman told CNN.

  • Connecticut State Police responded to reports of a shooting at a Newtown elementary school Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, in southwestern Connecticut, according to police spokesman.

  • Connecticut State Police responded to reports of a shooting at a Newtown elementary school Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, in southwestern Connecticut, according to police spokesman.

  • Connecticut State Police responded to reports of a shooting at a Newtown elementary school Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, in southwestern Connecticut, according to police spokesman.

  • Law enforcement canvass the area following a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., about 60 miles (96 kilometers) northeast of New York City, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. An official with knowledge of Friday's shooting said 27 people were dead, including 18 children. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

  • Parents leave a staging area after being reunited with their children following a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., about 60 miles (96 kilometers) northeast of New York City, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. An official with knowledge of Friday's shooting said 27 people were dead, including 18 children. It was the worst school shooting in the country's history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

  • A woman waits to hear about her sister, a teacher, following a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., about 60 miles (96 kilometers) northeast of New York City, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. An official with knowledge of Friday's shooting said 27 people were dead, including 18 children. It was the worst school shooting in the country's history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

  • Parents leave a staging area after being reunited with their children following a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., about 60 miles (96 kilometers) northeast of New York City, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. An official with knowledge of Friday's shooting said 27 people were dead, including 18 children. It was the worst school shooting in the country's history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

  • Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, right, talks with officials at a staging area following a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., about 60 miles (96 kilometers) northeast of New York City, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. An official with knowledge of Friday's shooting said 27 people were dead, including 18 children. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

  • State Police are on scene following a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., about 60 miles (96 kilometers) northeast of New York City, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. An official with knowledge of Friday's shooting said 27 people were dead, including 18 children. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

  • Law enforcement canvass the area following a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., about 60 miles (96 kilometers) northeast of New York City, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. An official with knowledge of Friday's shooting said 27 people were dead, including 18 children. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

  • Parents leave a staging area after being reunited with their children following a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., about 60 miles (96 kilometers) northeast of New York City, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. An official with knowledge of Friday's shooting said 27 people were dead, including 18 children. It was the worst school shooting in the country's history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

  • A woman waits to hear about her sister, a teacher, following a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., about 60 miles (96 kilometers) northeast of New York City, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. An official with knowledge of Friday's shooting said 27 people were dead, including 18 children. It was the worst school shooting in the country's history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

  • This satellite image provided by Google shows the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. A shooting at the school Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, left the gunman dead and at least one teacher wounded. (Google photo)

  • Parents leave a staging area after being reunited with their children following a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., about 60 miles (96 kilometers) northeast of New York City, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. An official with knowledge of Friday's shooting said 27 people were dead, including 18 children. It was the worst school shooting in the country's history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

  • Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, right, talks with officials at a staging area following a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., about 60 miles (96 kilometers) northeast of New York City, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. An official with knowledge of Friday's shooting said 27 people were dead, including 18 children. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

  • President Barack Obama wipes his eye as he talks about the Connecticut elementary school shooting, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, in the White House briefing room in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

  • A law enforcement agent arrives to the area following a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., about 60 miles (96 kilometers) northeast of New York City, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. An official with knowledge of Friday's shooting said 27 people were dead, including 18 children. (AP Photo/The New Haven Register, Melanie Stengel)

  • Law enforcement canvass an area following a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., about 60 miles (96 kilometers) northeast of New York City, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. An official with knowledge of Friday's shooting said 27 people were dead, including 18 children. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

  • Law enforcement canvass an area nearby a school shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., about 60 miles (96 kilometers) northeast of New York City, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. An official with knowledge of Friday's shooting said 27 people were dead, including 18 children. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

  • Flags fly at half mass at the Washington Monument in Washington, DC in wake of the Sandy Hook Shooting (AP photo)

  • A flag at the White House flies at half mass in wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. (AP photo)

  • People arrive for a prayer service at Newtown United Methodist Church in the aftermath of a mass shooting at nearby Sandy Hook Elementary School, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012 in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into the school Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

  • This July 2010 photo provided by the Newtown Bee shows Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, principal at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Conn. (AP Photo/Eliza Hallabeck)

  • Mourners look in from outside during a vigil service for victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, at the St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Newtown, Conn. Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. A man killed his mother at their home and then opened fire Friday inside the elementary school where she taught, massacring 26 people, including 20 children, as youngsters cowered in fear to the sound of gunshots reverberating through the building and screams echoing over the intercom (AP Photo/Andrew Gombert, Pool)

  • Mourners gather at a vigil service for victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, at the St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Newtown, Conn. Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. A man killed his mother at their home and then opened fire Friday inside the elementary school where she taught, massacring 26 people, including 20 children, as youngsters cowered in fear to the sound of gunshots reverberating through the building and screams echoing over the intercom (AP Photo/Andrew Gombert, Pool)

Corbo, along with Rob Manna, the department’s chief engineer, were among the first responders to Friday’s school massacre of 20 children and six adults.

Manna was working less than half a mile from the school in the center of Sandy Hook when he got the call.

“I was there very soon,” he says. At the time, he says, he had no idea what he was walking into.

Corbo and Manna were assigned outside the school, to an emergency triage area that didn’t end up being used.

Despite their combined nearly half-century of experience, the two men say nothing could have ever prepared them for what they have now personally experienced.

“You get the initial dispatch, and you really don’t know what you’re coming in to, but for the most part, you’re ready for it,” Corbo says. “But this time, it was not the case … if you think you’re ready for this, you’re not.

“Very early on, it was determined that this was bad — really, really bad.”

Police and paramedics, some clad in body armor and bulletproof vests, entered the school cautiously.

“They had to find out if anyone survived … if there was anyone to take care of,” Manna says.

Outside, it was mass confusion. Phone calls and text messages spread nearly faster than reports on police radios.

“It was chaos down there. Parents were coming from all directions. You could see the panic in everybody’s face, because they have no idea what they’re coming into,” Corbo says. “They were panic-stricken and trying to get to their children, but they were stopped.”

At the nearby firehouse, he says, he saw parents waiting in line for hours to pick up their children.

“And there’s no more kids around to take home,” Corbo says. “And you know, it’s bad. They’re gonna get some bad news. I’m sure they knew at that point, but there’s that shred of hope there’s somebody hiding in closet or some kid they missed, but ultimately that wasn’t the case.”

Corbo is a father to a first-grader and, had they not moved two years ago, his 7-year-old son Joey would have attended Sandy Hook Elementary.

When he returned home Friday, the former Marine did what many of the parents outside the school could not.

“‘I love you’ was the first thing I said,” Corbo recalls. “And we hugged a lot. Of course, he’s 7 years old, so a hug in the morning is fine, and before you go to bed, but getting hugged all day long, he’s wondering what the heck’s going on.

“He’ll understand someday.”

Manna says his grieving will come later. “For now, (I’ve) gotta be strong.”

Today, Newtown is awash with emblems of tragedy: an enormous American flag, starkly silhouetted against the sky, flies at half-staff in the middle of Main Street.

Just east, on the road that leads towards Sandy Hook Elementary, a host of 27 wooden angel statues sing a silent chorus on the roadside, a tribute to those who died Friday. Police say Adam Lanza shot and killed his mother at the home they shared, before carrying out the rampage at the school where he left 26 dead and also shot and killed himself.

A small bright note is the overwhelming support Newtown has been receiving from around the country and the world — including truckloads of teddy bears that firefighters are distributing to children’s groups, schools and churches..

“The community will go on,” Corbo says. “We have to. There are still a lot of children in this town waiting for Christmas to come. You have to move on. For their sake, it’s gotta be back to normal as soon as we can get it.”

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