NEWTOWN -- Off-duty Redding Police Officer Chris Vadas was picking up coffee for his fiancee, who works for the Newtown Board of Education, when two police cruisers with lights on and sirens blaring flashed by shortly after 9:30 a.m. Friday.
About the same time, emergency medical technician Roger Connor Jr. was taking a shower, getting ready for another day, when he heard "the tone go out," letting him know that he and other members of the Newtown Ambulance Corps were needed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Vadas' initial thought was that there had been an accident. It wasn't until he arrived at the school department's office a few minutes later that he realized it was something far different.
"The first selectman came up to me and said I had to leave the building," said Vadas, who served as a police officer in Newtown until joining the Redding department six years ago.
"We're in a lockdown, there's been an incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School," was all she told him, Vadas said.
Connor was almost ready to jump in his car when his father, Roger Sr., a lieutenant with Western Connecticut State University Police Department, called to ask, "What's going on in Newtown?"
The answer was something both men would learn only later: Twenty-six kids and teachers had been mowed down by a 20-year-old gunman.
On Monday night, hundreds of people packed the Newtown High School auditorium to honor the shooting victims and to hear President Barack Obama. They stood and applauded for the men and women who responded to the call from Sandy Hook Elementary Friday morning, some of whom are now struggling to deal with the carnage they witnessed, officials say.
Vadas wasn't supposed to be there.
Because he knew some of the firefighters at the Sandy Hook Fire Department, located adjacent to the school, he drove over.
"Stick around, we might need you," he said one told him.
Minutes later, he accompanied them to the school, where an injured woman limped from the building, screaming, "We need an ambulance," he said. Vadas helped her into a waiting vehicle, then turned around to see a state trooper with a young boy cradled in his arms.
"His body was limp," said Vadas, who appeared shaken as he described the ordeal. "I don't know if he made it. I don't even know his name."
He helped the trooper load the boy into the ambulance, moved the woman into the front, then stood back and watched it speed away.
The parking area around the school was jammed with emergency vehicles when Connor drove in.
En route, he'd learned there had been a shooting, and when he arrived police told him three paramedics were already inside, tending to the wounded.
Activating the mass-casualty protocol, Connor assumed the responsibilities of the EMS coordinator and began organizing the other ambulance crews to transport the wounded to area hospitals.
But as time passed and no more victims emerged, Connor got a sinking feeling.
"You knew in your gut it was something bad," he said.
Finally, police told him there would be no others requiring medical assistance, and his worst fears were confirmed.
Vadas, whose children had attended Sandy Hook Elementary years earlier, remained at the school until sometime after 11 a.m.
"At some point, I realized there was nothing else I could do," he said.
Before he left, estimates were that there had been "three to 10 victims," Vadas said, but there was no news on whether they were dead or just injured.
It wasn't until he was driving to work a few hours later that his sister called and told him that 27 people were dead, 20 of them children.
"I was just dumbfounded. I didn't know what to think," Vadas said.