A 20-year-old man wearing combat gear and armed with semiautomatic pistols and a semiautomatic rifle killed 26 people — 20 of them children — in an attack in an elementary school in central Connecticut on Friday. Witnesses and officials described a horrific scene as the gunman, with brutal efficiency, chose his victims in two classrooms while other students dove under desks and hid in closets.
Hundreds of terrified parents arrived as their sobbing children were led out of the Sandy Hook Elementary School in a wooded corner of Newtown, Conn. By then, all of the victims had been shot and most were dead, and the gunman, identified as Adam Lanza, had committed suicide. The children killed were said to be 5 to 10 years old.
A 28th person, found dead in a house in the town, was also believed to have been shot by Mr. Lanza. That victim, one law enforcement official said, was Mr. Lanza’s mother, Nancy Lanza, who worked at the school. She apparently owned the guns he used.
The principal had buzzed Mr. Lanza in because she recognized him as the son of a colleague. Moments later, she was shot dead when she went to investigate the sound of gunshots. The school psychologist was also among those who died.
The rampage, coming less than two weeks before Christmas, was the nation’s second-deadliest school shooting, exceeded only by the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, in which a gunman killed 32 people and then himself.
Law enforcement officials said Mr. Lanza had grown up in Newtown, and he was remembered by high school classmates as smart, introverted and nervous. They said he had gone out of his way not to attract attention when he was younger.
The gunman was chillingly accurate. A spokesman for the State Police said he left only one wounded survivor at the school. All the others hit by the barrage of bullets from the guns Mr. Lanza carried died, suggesting that they were shot at point-blank range. One law enforcement official said the shootings occurred in two classrooms in a section of the single-story Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Some who were there said the shooting occurred during morning announcements, and the initial shots could be heard over the school’s public address system. The bodies of those killed were still in the school as of 10 p.m. Friday.
The New York City medical examiner’s office sent a “portable morgue” to Newtown to help with the aftermath of the shootings, a spokeswoman, Ellen Borakove, confirmed late Friday.
Law enforcement officials offered no hint of what had motivated Mr. Lanza. It was also unclear, one investigator said, why Mr. Lanza — after shooting his mother to death inside her home — drove her car to the school and slaughtered the children. “I don’t think anyone knows the answers to those questions at this point,” the official said. As for a possible motive, he added, “we don’t know much for sure.”
F.B.I. agents interviewed his brother, Ryan Lanza, in Hoboken, N.J. His father, Peter Lanza, who was divorced from Nancy Lanza, was also questioned, one official said.
Newtown, a postcard-perfect New England town where everyone seems to know everyone else and where there had lately been holiday tree lightings with apple cider and hot chocolate, was plunged into mourning. Stunned residents attended four memorial services in the town on Friday evening as detectives continued the search for clues, and an explanation.
Maureen Kerins, a hospital nurse who lives close to the school, learned of the shooting from television and hurried to the school to see if she could help.
“I stood outside waiting to go in, but a police officer came out and said they didn’t need any nurses,” she said, “so I knew it wasn’t good.”
In the cold light of Friday morning, faces told the story outside the stricken school. There were the frightened faces of children who were crying as they were led out in a line. There were the grim faces of women. There were the relieved-looking faces of a couple and their little girl.
The shootings set off a tide of anguish nationwide. In Illinois and Georgia, flags were lowered to half-staff in memory of the victims. And at the White House, President Obama struggled to read a statement in the White House briefing room. More than once, he dabbed his eyes.
“Our hearts are broken,” Mr. Obama said, adding that his first reaction was not as a president, but as a parent.
“I know there is not a parent in America who does not feel the same overwhelming grief that I do,” he said.
He called the victims “beautiful little kids.”
“They had their entire lives ahead of them: birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own,” he said. Then the president reached up to the corner of one eye.
Mr. Obama called for “meaningful action” to stop such shootings, but he did not spell out details. In his nearly four years in office, he has not pressed for expanded gun control. But he did allude on Friday to a desire to have politicians put aside their differences to deal with ways to prevent future shootings.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy of Connecticut, who went to Newtown, called the shootings “a tragedy of unspeakable terms.”
“Evil visited this community today,” he said.
Lt. J. Paul Vance, a spokesman for the Connecticut State Police, described “a very horrific and difficult scene” at the school, which had 700 students in kindergarten through fourth grade. It had a security protocol that called for doors to be locked during the day and visitors to be checked on a video monitor inside.
“You had to buzz in and out and the whole nine yards,” said a former chairwoman of the Newtown board of education, Lillian Bittman. “When you buzz, you come up on our screen.”
The lock system did not go into effect until 9:30 each morning, according to a letter to parents from the principal, Dawn Hochsprung, that was posted on several news Web sites. The letter was apparently written earlier in the school year.
It was Ms. Hochsprung, who recognized Mr. Lanza because his mother worked at the school, who let him in on Friday. Sometime later, she heard shots and went to see what was going on.
Lieutenant Vance said the Newtown police had called for help from police departments nearby and began a manhunt, checking “every nook and cranny and every room.”
Officers were seen kicking in doors as they worked their way through the school.
Lieutenant Vance said the students who died had been in two classrooms. Others said that as the horror unfolded, students and teachers tried to hide in places the gunman would not think to look. Teachers locked the doors, turned off the lights and closed the blinds. Some ordered students to duck under their desks.
The teachers did not explain what was going on, but they did not have to. Everyone could hear the gunfire.
Yvonne Cech, a school librarian, said she had spent 45 minutes locked in a closet with two library clerks, a library catalog assistant and 18 fourth graders.
“The SWAT team escorted us out,” she said, and then the children were reunited with their parents.
Lieutenant Vance said 18 youngsters were pronounced dead at the school and two others were taken to hospitals, where they were declared dead. All the adults who were killed at the school were pronounced dead there.
Law enforcement officials said the weapons used by the gunman were a Sig Sauer and a Glock, both handguns. The police also found a Bushmaster .223 M4 carbine.
One law enforcement official said the guns had not been traced because they had not yet been removed from the school, but state licensing records or permits apparently indicated that Ms. Lanza owned weapons of the same makes and models.
“He visited two classrooms,” said a law enforcement official at the scene, adding that those two classrooms were adjoining.
The first 911 call was recorded about 9:30 and said someone had been shot at the school, an almost unthinkable turn of events on what had begun as just another chilly day in quiet Newtown. Soon, frantic parents were racing to the school, hoping their children were all right. By 10:30, the shooting had stopped. By then, the police had arrived with dogs.
“There is going to be a black cloud over this area forever,” said Craig Ansman, who led his 4-year-old daughter from the preschool down the street from the elementary school. “It will never go away.”