HARTFORD, Conn. - Hundreds of thousands of cards, letters, stuffed animals, and children's artwork from around the world flooded into Newtown in the days and weeks after the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The town kept everything. Some of it was preserved in its original form. Other items were documented in photos or turned into recycled material called "sacred soil," which officials hope can be used in the foundation of a new school or to construct a permanent memorial for the 26 victims of the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting.
"Nothing was thrown into a landfill," said Yolie Moreno, a resident who headed the archiving effort, taking charge of the letters, cards, and artwork. "Every single thing was saved: tags from teddy bears, paper snowflakes, everything."
Tens of thousands of items were sorted by state and country of origin. A group of volunteers, many of them professional photojournalists, then photographed them to create a digital record. Norwalk-based Xerox Corp. is helping create a website so people can view much of it.
The town's library requested some of it for another website. About 5,000 pieces of correspondence will be stored there in a searchable form, Moreno said.
"We read through them and picked out a sampling of the most poignant," she said "It was important to us that people know that what they sent in was read, was appreciated."
About 30 boxes filled with handmade items are in storage at the municipal center. Officials hope they can be used in a future art installation, Moreno said.
Many of the items are from children, such as a watercolor with the words "You don't know how strong you are, until being STRONG is the only option you have." The rest - about 400 cubic yards' worth of letters, votive candles, wreaths, and teddy bears left in makeshift shrines all over Newtown - was taken to a trash-to-energy plant in October in Bridgeport.
Public works director Fred Hurley said all the material was treated with the utmost respect. The machines were cleaned, and plant operators made sure nothing from Newtown was mixed with anything else. The process of cremating the items was also filmed to ensure nothing was taken as a souvenir, he said. "The material was incinerated, and the ash was cleaned out of the furnace and separated into a box."
Plans call for mixing what is now about two cubic yards of sacred soil into construction materials, either bricks or cement that will be used perhaps in the foundation of a new Sandy Hook school or to help construct a permanent memorial to the massacre.