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July 2, 2013

Dispatchers honored for role in Newtown response

HARTFORD, Conn. — From the first call from inside Sandy Hook Elementary School, the severity of the attack was immediately clear to dispatcher Robert Nute.

The person on the other end of the line was a woman Nute has known for 30 years, but it hardly sounded like her.

"There was no question in my mind," Nute said. "The woman I was speaking with, I could tell the difference in her voice."

As shots rang out from the gunman's semi-automatic rifle, the dispatchers sent police racing to the school and worked to keep panicked callers on the line. Within a few minutes, the rampage was over, with 20 children and six women killed before the gunman committed suicide as police arrived at the schoolhouse.

The staff at the Newtown Emergency Communications Center has won praise from officials and colleagues around the country for their work that day. Six months after the Dec. 14 massacre, the center director said the staff has been lifted by the outpouring of support as the dispatchers recover emotionally, along with the community that still peppers them with calls over anything out of the ordinary.

After losing contact with the woman who first called, Nute feared she had been killed, but he learned she survived.

"It was six minutes, maybe eight, and that part of it was over," he said. "My partner and I did exactly what we were supposed to do under those circumstances. Only then do you allow that personal impact to take over."

Nute, who attended Sandy Hook Elementary as child and is a volunteer Sandy Hook firefighter, said the hardest work that morning began in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, as parents sought information and groups called offering assistance and donations. The center director, Maureen Will, said it received as many as 300 calls an hour and the phones were broken within three days from the constant jamming of the buttons.

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