NEWTOWN -- Gene Rosen stopped at his home near Sandy Hook School to feed two cats in his care when he heard gunshots last Friday.
At first he discounted the noise as fireworks.
He went in his garage to feed the cats and when he came out he saw six children sitting in a circle on his front lawn.
"They were sitting very sweetly in a circle next to the lantern," Rosen said, his eyes full of tears as he recounted the events of the morning of Dec. 14.
"But as I approached I realized they were crying, they were out of breath, their faces were filled with terror."
The six first-graders somehow had escaped from Sandy Hook Elementary School as a gunman shot and killed 20 young students and six educators.
They ran down Dickinson Drive and around the corner to Rosen's house on Riverside Road -- less than half a mile away.
They had just seen their teacher die.
Rosen invited the children and a bus driver who was with them into the safety of his home. They followed quietly up the short hill to his small yellow, 18th century house.
Inside, Rosen grabbed a handful of his grandchildren's stuffed toys and gave them to the students, who he said appeared to be comforted. One child, Rosen said, began to spell her name out on a stuffed frog that had the alphabet on his belly.
They settled in the small living room with wide plank floors, two windows looking out at the driveway and a large hearth filled with family photos and a white tile hung with a single word, "Peace."
Two of the boys sat on a rug in front of the couch, Rosen said, and suddenly they began to talk.
"Something changed," Rosen said. "One boy started saying loudly, `We can't go back to the school, we can't go back to the school, our teacher is gone. Ms. Soto is gone.' "
The other boy joined in, "He had a little gun," Rosen recalled the boy saying, "and a big gun."
A girl also began talking. She said she saw blood coming from Soto's mouth, then the girl fell to the floor, Rosen said, and the narrative stopped.
It was only after Rosen heard on the news later that evening that first-grade teacher Vicky Soto had been killed, that he knew the story the children told was true.
Rosen began to cry.
"I knew they had witnessed the death of their teacher," he said. "The children were so strong, so strong and so sweet."
They were among an unknown number of students who fled the scene. Another small group was picked up by a mother who was heading to the school to deliver a gingerbread house.
The children with Rosen knew their phone numbers, but parents were not home. The bus driver called a supervisor and obtained emergency contacts for the parents and more calls were made.
Parents of four of the six children were reached and learned their children were safe. They rushed to Rosen's house, he said.
After reuniting the children with their parents, the group walked to the firehouse next door, where students were being accounted for.
"I know there was a room full of parents in that firehouse whose children had perished," Rosen said, as he began to cry again. "Someone had to tell them they were gone."
When he returned home, a weary Rosen sat on the couch, when a knock came on the front door.
"There was a woman," he said. "Her face was frozen in fear. She heard there were six children in the home and was hoping her son was among them."
But the boy was among the 20 who were killed.
"I wanted to say he was here," Rosen said as he held his face in his hands and sobbed. "I wanted to say he was here.
"I saw that boy's funeral pass my house the other day. I just want to put my arms around that woman and hug her."
Rosen, a retired psychiatrist who worked at the now closed Fairfield Hills hospital, said it was the time he spent with his two grandchildren that prepared him for that horrible day.
"These are my teachers," he said, pulling a picture of the two children from the mantel. "They gave me the strength to be with these children."
After days of reflecting on the tragedy, Rosen said the strength and innocence of the children continues to stand out.
"I want the world to know that the goodness of these children, their strength and their innocence, can lead us to a civil discourse," he said. "They know the answers, they know the truth."
As Sandy Hook continues to heal, Rosen said he hopes that someday he can have a reunion with the children, and take them sledding on the hill in his backyard once there's snow.
"These children are always in my prayers," he said. "I want to meet them in the light, because we came together in the darkness."
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