NEWTOWN, Conn. — Bunches of flowers floated counter-clockwise in the waters of the circular Memorial Pool, passing the engraved names of the 20 freshmen and six educators killed a short distance away. Sandy Hook Elementary School almost 10 years ago.
The long-awaited memorial to the victims officially opened to the public on Sunday, attracting regular visitors throughout the day. There was no ceremony, in keeping with Newtown tradition of marking birthdays and other memories of the shooting with quiet reflection.
“It takes your breath away,” said Nora Smith, a nearby Monroe resident who visited the memorial with her husband, Kevin. “It’s something you care about because you feel so bad for these families.”
A path from the small parking lot descends a hill to the center of the memorial – a man-made water feature with a sycamore sprouting from an island in the middle. The 26 names are carved on top of a stone wall supporting the pool. A cobbled driveway surrounds the feature, its outer ring lined with black-eyed Susan flowers. Other paths lead past a variety of field plantings.
With the leaves of the trees having fallen, the new Sandy Hook School is now visible from the memorial. The new school was built on the same property, but not in the same footprint as the old one, which was demolished after the December 14, 2012 shooting.
Relatives of the victims were offered a private visit on Saturday. Others, including Jennifer Hubbard, visited earlier by private appointment. His daughter, Catherine Violet Hubbard, 6, was one of the children who died in the shooting.
“It took my breath away in the sense of seeing Catherine’s name and seeing what was created to honor those who lost…the families, those who survived – they lost their innocence,” said she declared. “And the community. We have all suffered because of December 14.
“I think the memorial is so perfectly appointed to honor and provide a place of contemplation and reflection for a day that truly changed the country,” said Hubbard, who is now executive director of the Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary in Newtown.
Nelba Marquez-Greene, whose 6-year-old daughter Ana Grace Marquez-Greene died in the shooting, took to Twitter on Saturday to thank those who worked on planning the memorial for years.
“Ten years. A life and a blink of an eye,” she wrote. “Ana Grace, we used to wait for you to come home. Now you’re waiting for us. Wait, baby. Wait.”
Several visitors refused to speak to the few journalists present on Sunday. Others discussed their thoughts but would not give their full names, saying the day was dedicated to the victims. Many in Newtown fear the media rush that comes to town on each shooting anniversary.
“It’s a tough day,” said one woman, her eyes filling with tears as she walked back to her vehicle after viewing the memorial.
City police occasionally stop at the site, which also has surveillance cameras.
Visitors get their first view of the memorial in the small parking lot overlooking the site. Near the start of a path down the hill, a plaque welcomes visitors and includes a quote from former President Barack Obama when he spoke at a vigil in Newtown two days after the shooting.
“Here in Newtown, I come to offer a nation’s love and prayers,” reads Obama’s quote. “I am very aware that mere words cannot match the depth of your grief, nor heal your wounded hearts.
“I can only hope it helps to know that you are not alone in your grief; that our world too has been torn apart; that all across this country of ours we have cried with you,” says the plaque. .
City voters approved $3.7 million for the cost of the memorial last year. Much of the cost was offset when the State Bond Commission approved granting the city $2.5 million for the project.
The project faced several challenges after the city established a special commission to oversee planning for the memorial in fall 2013. Some proposed sites were rejected, including one near a hunting club where gunfire could be heard, and officials cut the cost of the project by $10 million for fear that voters would approve it.
City officials say the memorial will be open as long as weather permits this winter, then reopen in the spring.
For Newtown First Selectman Dan Rosenthal, the city’s top elected official, the memorial is both a low-key and intense tribute to those killed in the shooting.
“When you’re in the hollow, at the water’s edge, there’s a very peaceful serenity,” he said. “You stand in front of this water feature and the magnitude… There are 26 cornerstones at the water’s edge, it’s pretty overwhelming.”