NEWTOWN, Conn. -- Bouquets of flowers floated counterclockwise in the waters of the circular memorial pool, passing the engraved names of the 20 first graders and six educators killed a short distance away at Sandy Hook Elementary School nearly 10 years ago.
The long-awaited memorial to the victims officially opened to the public on Sunday, drawing visitors steadily throughout the day. There was no ceremony, in keeping with Newtown's tradition of marking anniversaries and other remembrances of the shooting with quiet reflection.
“It just takes your breath away,” said Nora Smith, a resident of nearby Monroe who visited the memorial with her husband, Kevin. “It’s something that you hold close to your heart because you feel so bad for these families.”
A path from the small parking lot leads down a hill to the focus of the memorial — a manmade water feature with a sycamore tree sprouting from an island in the middle. The 26 names are engraved in the top of a stone wall supporting the pool. A cobblestone walkway surrounds the feature, its outer ring lined with black-eyed Susan flowers. Other paths lead past a variety of plantings on the grounds.
With tree leaves 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 torn down after the shooting on Dec. 14, 2012.
Relatives’ victims were offered a private tour on Saturday. Others, including Jennifer Hubbard, visited earlier by private appointment. Her daughter, Catherine Violet Hubbard, 6, was one of the children who died in the shooting.
“It took my breath away in the sense that to see Catherine’s name and to see what has been created in honor of those that lost ... the families, those that survived — they’ve lost their innocence,” she said. “And the community. We all suffered because of Dec. 14.
“I think that the memorial is so perfectly appointed in honoring and providing a place of contemplation and reflection for a day that really 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 the memorial planning for years.
“Ten years. A lifetime and a blink,” she wrote. “Ana Grace, we used to wait for you to come home. Now you wait for us. Hold on, little one. Hold on.”
Several visitors declined to speak with the few reporters present Sunday. Others discussed their thoughts but did not want to give their full names, saying the day was about the victims. Many in Newtown are apprehensive about the rush of media that comes to town every anniversary of the shooting.
“It's a difficult day,” said a woman, her eyes filled with tears as she returned to her vehicle after viewing the memorial.
Town police officers occasionally stopped by the site, which also has surveillance cameras.
Visitors get their first view of the memorial in the small parking lot, which overlooks the site. Near the beginning of a path that leads down the hill, a plaque welcomes visitors and includes a quote by former President Barack Obama from when he spoke at a vigil in Newtown two days after the shooting.
“Here in Newtown, I come to offer the love and prayers of a nation,” the Obama quote reads. "I am very mindful that mere words cannot match the depths of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts.
“I can only hope it helps for you to know that you're not alone in your grief; that our world, too, has been torn apart; that all across this land of ours, we have wept with you," the plaque reads.
Town 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 giving the town $2.5 million for the project.
The project faced several challenges after the town created a special commission to oversee memorial planning in the fall of 2013. Some proposed sites were rejected, including one near a hunting club where gunshots could be heard, and officials cut the cost of the project down from $10 million because of concerns voters would not approve it.
Town officials say the memorial will be open as long as weather permits this winter, and then reopen in the spring.
For Newtown First Selectman Dan Rosenthal, the town's top elected official, the memorial is both a quiet and intense tribute to those killed in the shooting.
“When you’re down in the hollow, at the water’s edge, it has a very peaceful serenity to it,” he said. “You're standing at this water feature and the magnitude ... There's 26 capstones on the water's edge, It’s pretty overwhelming.”