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Newtown pastor: Parents asked about kids' last moments

As the parents of the children who were murdered by a gunman in a Connecticut elementary school Friday attempt to process the horror of their death, many tried to imagine what the final moments for their loved ones were like.

Several of them came to be consoled by Msgr. Robert Weiss, the pastor of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Newtown, Connecticut. Weiss spoke with Savannah Guthrie on TODAY Saturday about the moment when families were informed by authorities that their children or loved ones had perished in the shooting that claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults.

“I think many of them in their hearts knew their child or their spouse was gone but going with the police last night to confirm that was overwhelming,’’ Weiss said. “Many of the questions are just wondering what were the last moments of these people’s lives like. They were wondering did the child even know what was happening, were they afraid, did they see something coming? And of course no one can answer that question because there were no survivors, so these parents are left with those unanswered questions in addition to just why this had to happen, why to their child?’’

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Weiss recalled a mother’s excitement earlier in the day that her daughter was going to be an angel in the church’s Christmas pageant, another parent looking forward to her daughter making her first Holy Communion, and another’s joy over her 5-year-old scoring her first soccer goal. There also was a brutal reminder of the loss from the simple buzzing of a cell phone.

“I was sitting there and one of the alarms went off on (a mother’s) phone, and she was supposed to pick up her child to take him to Cub Scouts and realized that was never going to happen again,’’ Weiss said. “The emotions of yesterday were just absolutely overwhelming, and I don’t know if the reality has really settled in yet.’’

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Weiss gathered with parents at a local firehouse in Newtown on Friday, some experiencing the joy of being reunited with their children, and others being informed by authorities that their children were among those whose lives were lost.

“It was quite emotional,’’ he said. “A number of the children ran over to me, and they were crying and they were hugging me and waiting for their parents to get there. I felt as if they wanted to go home, but I didn’t think they wanted to leave their friends either. They weren’t sure what was happening.

“When they were taking the attendance and certain names were not called, most people were asked to go into a separate room. Everyone’s heart just dropped. They knew something horrible had happened to their child and to their family member.’’

Weiss held a vigil at St. Rose of Lima on Friday night, and residents packed the church while hundreds more stood outside, where 26 candles were set up by a tree with a cross. Many left makeshift shrines, toys, Santa balloons, candles and roses around the church’s property.

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“There are no words,’’ he said. “The families that I know so well just said 'thank you for your presence here.' There was a lot of hugging, a lot of crying, a lot of praying and a lot of just being silent. Last night at our vigil, this is the kind of town Newtown is. People came together to care and to support.’’

Sandy Hook Elementary is a school of approximately 626 students from kindergarten through fourth grade. First responders to the scene of the murders had to receive counseling.

“We have employee assistance counselors that have been on scene since the inception yesterday for all troopers, all first responders, EMS, fire personnel, and Newtown police officers,’’ Lt. J. Paul Vance of the Connecticut state police told Matt Lauer on TODAY Saturday. “It certainly is a travesty. It’s a scene that no one should have to encounter. Our hearts are broken for the families of these victims, and it will take a long time for that tear to heal.’’

“Many of the families I spoke to yesterday said you know, this world has become so violent at least they know their child is safe, (and) they know where they are,’’ Weiss said. “That’s a terrible thought for any parent raising a child today to think that they might have to grow up in a world like this. If we work together, good things can happen.’’