A close-up photo of a teddy bear and rose in the rain in a memorial to the victims of the 2021 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Rain soaks a makeshift memorial in the Sandy Hook village of Newtown, Conn., three days after the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting that left 20 students and six school employees dead.

By Chip Scanlan

Legend has it that Tom Wolfe, the New Journalism pioneer whose stories regularly presented his characters’ points of view, was once challenged by a critic who demanded to know how he could possibly know what those characters were thinking. Wolfe had a simple answer: “I asked them.”

​”There’s nothing mystical about knowing what somebody is thinking,” agreed Jay Kirk, who spent several years interviewing a team of crime scene investigators who worked the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. “You ask them,” he told me.

That approach enabled Kirk to convey in riveting detail the investigators’ mindsets and memories in They Saw the Horrific Aftermath of a Mass Shooting. Should We?, a New York Times Magazine story that won the 2024 National Magazine Award for feature writing. The 8,000-word story was published in April 2023 — nearly a dozen years after the killings of 20 children between 6 and 7 years old and six adult staff members.

The narrative unspools the horrors of that day through the eyes of three investigators who shared the experiences, reactions and ramifications of cataloging every piece of evidence left behind after a 20-year-old former student armed with a Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle entered the school and opened fire in two first-grade classrooms.

The action is driven by reconstructed scenes and dialogue that was verified by multiple sources. It chronicles the 12-16 hour days that detectives Art Walkley, Karoline Keith and Sgt. Jeff Covello of the Connecticut State Police worked inside the school, and the emotional trauma they suffered away from the job.

Nonfiction writer and University of Pennsylvania creative writing teacher Jay Kirk

Jay Kirk

Kirk, who admits “to a tendency to take on too much,” initially wanted to focus on multiple mass shootings. Only after interviewing investigators who worked the 2006 Amish schoolhouse shooting in Nickel Mines, Pa., the CSI team that documented the 2012 Aurora, Colo. theater shooting and embedding with Philadelphia investigators did he turn his attention to Sandy Hook.

Kirk was told repeatedly that the Connecticut investigators wouldn’t talk with him. But he reached out and won their trust with an interviewing style that he describes as being “unafraid to ask dumb questions.” He credits his tenacity to the inspiration of his narrative nonfiction students at the University of Pennsylvania who refuse to give up in the face of rejection. “Practice what you preach is what I have to remind myself when I’d literally rather be doing anything else,” he told me.

The result is an unfiltered portrait of anonymous public servants who confront the realities of gun violence, highlighting a little-told story about the emotional scars a mass shooting leaves beyond that suffered by victims and survivors.

Kirk tells the story chronologically through third-person point of view that reflects an authoritative grasp of CSI methods and the varied ways Sandy Hook traumatized a team of investigators hardened by hundreds of murder investigations. He practiced what Gay Talese called the “fine art of hanging out,” visiting his subjects’ homes,  drinking beers with them around a fire at Costello’s house, and spending long stretches interviewing them by phone.

From the outset, he decided against detailed descriptions of the carnage, responding to his sources’ insistence that they wouldn’t run the risk of retraumatizing family members of the slain children. He relies instead on descriptions of the actions and reactions from the CSI team and, in one long scene, how Attorney General Eric Holder responded when he made a visit, seeming “to grow smaller in his chair” as the images flashed on a large TV screen.

Kirk spoke with Nieman Storyboard about the importance of immersion, his method for structuring stories and the importance of washing dishes by hand. Our conversation, and the annotation of Kirk’s story, has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you become a writer of narrative nonfiction?
In my 20s, I wanted to be a novelist, I spent five years holed up in a little cabin in Vermont writing a novel that never sold but that I ultimately understood was just my own private MFA program. On a total lark, I wrote a couple of pieces for alt-weeklies, the Philadelphia City Paper and the Chicago Reader. Like many people my age, I was turned on by the Harper’s kind of David Foster Wallace experiential reported essays. I thought that sounds like fun. Then I looked back at my novel-writing phase and realized one of my favorite parts had always been the research — entering actual reality. And since the subject of nonfiction is always reality, the theme is pretty constant.

Why do you call some of your courses in narrative nonfiction at UPenn “The Art of Experience.”
Some non-fiction courses focus on memoir.  I’m more interested in writing that documents the immediacy of a moment. One of the exercises I have for my students is to think about how many photographs they take during the week and then, when they’re about to take a photograph, pull out their notebook and pen or their notes app instead and describe not only the image itself, but notice why you found this interesting, what was the moment leading up to this, and then see how minutely you can describe something. Operate like a documentary camera: Let the camera run and see what you find. That’s the experiential position the writer can take: Try and capture everything and then go back and look at what you have. That leads to the experience of making discoveries and where it gets really exciting.

Who are the writers or books that have shaped you?
Like most writers, I just read a lot. It’s essential. I can’t point to just three or four. Whatever I’ve read the night before will find its way into my work the next day — a word or a sensibility or a technique, the way that sentence structure worked, or I don’t need to write the sentence this way. I’m being shaped every day by whatever I’m reading.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers who wish to explore narrative nonfiction? Read more. And make yourself come up with better questions — you can do that by reading more. Also spend less time crafting defendable opinions and more time becoming comfortable with uncertainty, which is synonymous with reality. Again, if you’re writing nonfiction, your subject is reality, and reality does not lend itself to defendable opinions.

ANNOTATION: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Kirk’s answers in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the HIDE ANNOTATIONS button in the right-hand menu on your monitor or at the top of your mobile device.

A school bus and several cars drive past posters of angels that line the road to Sandy Hook Elementary School, three weeks after a mass shooting that left 20 students and six school employees dead.

Memorial signs along a road from Newtown, Conn., to a Monroe high school, where students who survived the Dec. 14, 2012, mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary attended classes during the police investigation and school clean-up.

They Saw the Horrific Aftermath of a Mass Shooting. Should We?

The crime-scene investigators are the ones who document, and remember, the unimaginable. This is what they saw at Sandy Hook.

By Jay Kirk
The New York Times Magazine, April 20, 2023

The crime-scene van was parked next to the black Honda Civic already identified as belonging to the shooter, the yellow tape marking its perimeter juddering in a helicopter gust. Earlier that morning, before the van was cleared to move closer to the school, Jeff Covello, the crime-scene-van supervisor, and his team were crowded around the dry-erase board. Art Walkley, the only one on the van who had so far been inside, sketched out what he said were the two main areas of impact. He arrived with the other first-response officers and stormed the school as children were running out, his gun drawn, ready to kill on sight, in fact quite eager to pull the trigger once he glimpsed Classrooms 10 and 8.

Jeff had never seen Art look the way he did after he came out of the school. It was more of an apparition that climbed back onto the van. The two of them were SWAT for eight years together before Jeff transferred to Major Crimes and brought Art with him. They had taken fire together. They had seen each other become parents. Art had seen Jeff call his wife in the middle of the night to remind her where to find the life insurance.

They could all read one another’s minds. Karoline Keith, the senior detective on the van, had already been riding for more than five years when Jeff arrived as the new supervising sergeant. It was Karoline who suggested that Art try to tell them what he saw and sketch it on the board. She hoped it would make it easier once they got inside. Art said he didn’t think there was anything he could say that was going to make it easier. Why did you open the story this way? It’s a character-driven piece. The story will primarily take place in their heads, focusing on their experience. That seemed like the natural place to start. How did you decide to focus on these investigators? The dynamic between the investigators, Karoline Keith, and Art Walkley and Jeff Covello triggered my story radar. They were in the school 12, 14, 16 hours a day for seven days straight. They were so experienced and hardened and had seen everything. Karoline Keith had 300 murders under her belt by the time Sandy Hook came around. They had that forensic mentality and I was interested in how can people do this sort of work.

As detectives for the Connecticut State Police Western District Major Crime Squad, they were all experts in human depravity, but Art was the death guy. The one who was lowered into septic tanks to retrieve badly decayed body parts. What were you trying to signal with this graphic and disturbing imagery high up in the story? By the title of the piece and the tagline, every reader knows that this is going to be about Sandy Hook and the crime investigators who saw Sandy Hook.  For readers, I presumed there was going to be a degree of ‘Do I really want to read this? Do I dare?’ For me, the question became how am I going to negotiate those expectations? I’ve already made fundamental decisions. For instance, I’m not going to actually show the reader anything too gruesome. That’s a decision I made out of respect for my subjects; they felt that it could re-traumatize the families. I ended up agreeing with them. But I needed to let you know right away that these weren’t just podunk cops coming to a mass shooting scene. These were exceptionally, horrifically, experienced crime scene investigators who who had seen everything. I’m not going to avoid saying what these people do. I wanted to get that part out of the way quickly.

He had seen everything imaginable and a good deal of the unimaginable. And yet somehow he managed to stay one step ahead of the crowd of ghosts that were always following on their heels from one death scene investigation to the next. But by the look of him now, in the parking lot of Sandy Hook Elementary on Dec. 14, 2012, the ghosts had caught up all at once. What drew you towrite a story about the crime scene investigators in the Sandy Hook mass shooting case in the first place? It had become a persistent question whether or not it would make any difference if people saw these images from a mass shooting. In conversations with my editor, Jessica Lustig, we decided that the best avenue, or maybe the most intriguing way to address the question, would be to talk to the people who had actually seen it themselves.

SWAT had cleared the building, and the F.B.I. had checked for explosives and ruled out terrorism. Now it was up to them to take the photographs, measure, collect evidence and conduct the exacting work of meticulous reconstruction. As the crime-scene investigators for W.D.M.C. — Eastern District Major Crime would have the shooter’s home; Central District Major Crime had the exterior of the school — they were recognized in the state as being the elite, specially trained detectives that they were. They would note how the shells clustered; how the choreography of the shooter’s movements was revealed by the voids where shells or blood were absent; where someone paused to reload. And then memorialize their work with extensive photographs and video so in court an independent expert could reproduce their calculations and arrive at the same conclusions. That was ultimately the importance of the job: to see, to look — and to do so with grinding duration. Could you describe the reporting and research that let you to write with such authority and specificity about the team’s work? Initially, I wanted to look at multiple mass shootings. I went down months of blind alleys before I decided to focus on Sandy Hook. I interviewed the crime scene investigators from the West Nickel Mines Amish schoolhouse shooting. I visited the crime scene investigators who had first gone into the Aurora movie theater shooting in Denver. Because I live in Philadelphia and we have such an enormous death toll, it occurred to me that right here crime scene investigators are seeing “mass murder” all the time, by which I mean hundreds of mass shootings every year. So I tagged along with them for a while, going to active murder investigations, hanging out in the van and their office. Eventually, I started having very long phone conversations with Karoline, Jeff, and Art, listening to them tell the story. These are things they told me, talking about something so private.  I don’t think I ever talked to Karoline on the phone for less than three hours, maybe to talk about one thing or a handful of follow-up questions. Everything in the end, all of the work, is in the follow-up questions. There’s a long period of trust-building that you have to go through and you just have to have enough faith in the process. We tend to have such a productivist mindset. We hurry too much. We’re always in a rush to get the story in, and we need to publish it now.  I just ignore that until I’ve got what I want. How do you know when you’ve reached that point and that what you’ve written is accurate? You talk to somebody for three hours and then print off the transcript. The next morning, you have 70 pages and you read through it and you read through it again and then you realize, wow, they told me that, that’s pretty interesting, and then you ask more follow-up questions. In this case, they were all in the same situation and they’re documenting everything they do because they’re all detectives. I would reconfirm almost every detail in the story with each of them. And they would always tell me the exact same thing, except usually, of course, adding a new detail, adding a new dimension.

We tend to have such a productivist mindset. We hurry too much.

Now, here, where 20 first graders and the principal, the school psychologist and four teachers were lying dead inside, they could maintain the detached forensic mind-set for only so long before the corrosive reality of what happened here began to seep into their Tyvek shells. When you use a detail such as “Tyvek shells,” are you at all concerned that the average reader won’t know what you’re talking about? When it comes to whether or not you need to include some kind of appositive definition or clarification, I’m usually going to think about what’s common knowledge. In this case, anyone could quickly look it up if they want to. But also because of mass culture we all know that CSI are wearing these big white, insulating suits. So I’m just naming the material. Dan Sliby looked to have gone into full robot mode. The usual vibrant prankster energy of Steve Rupsis, who would be on video today, was gone. He, like several others on the van, had a child close in age to the victims inside. Jeff himself, for the time being, was safely immersed in logistics at the little supervisor’s desk where he made out assignments. Calculating what resources they were going to need. Gas for the generators. Gloves. Bootees. All the supplies for who-knew-how-many decontamination stations. How did you learn the specifics of the necessary resources? Straight from Jeff. That was his job, but by spending time with Philadelphia CSI units, being on the truck, asking what’s in this cabinet, what’s in the refrigerator here, I realized it would help me design better questions for Sandy Hook.

The helicopters were not helping. Karoline thought for sure they were going to slam into one another and rain down another layer of destruction. But even if they crashed down on top of Sandy Hook Elementary, well, then they would handle that too. Jeff had said it a million times: God forbid, if a 747 crashed into the State Police barracks, they would know what to do. The job was the same whether it was one person or six. (Not that they had ever processed a homicide scene with more than two victims.) Their skills were infinitely scalable. Without knowing it, they had been preparing for this day their entire careers. You said you went down months of blind alleys. What kept you going? I remember feeling frustrated and exhausted, that this is never going to happen. Everyone said if you want to write about the people who had seen a mass murder, no one will ever talk to you. I took that as a challenge, right?  I take inspiration from some of my students, too. They never give up, no matter how many times they’re told no. I said I guess it’s time for me to follow my own advice. So I just kept after it and lucked out.

As have the countless other crime-scene investigators who must dwell in the aftermath following each mass shooting. Virginia Tech, Columbine, the Aurora movie theater, the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the El Paso Walmart shooting, Parkland, Las Vegas, Binghamton, San Bernardino, Sutherland Springs, Thousand Oaks, Virginia Beach, Monterey Park, Santa Fe, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Uvalde, the Covenant School in Nashville in March and Louisville in April. Each scene of unimaginable horror witnessed by an anonymous team we have chosen, without knowing it, to do the gruesome work of internalizing our national crisis for us. The story doesn’t seem to have the obligatory nut graf, but this seems to be the one paragraph that pulls back from the narrative. Is that it? I almost didn’t want to say that much. In the early days of research, I read a half dozen books on the Second Amendment and gun issues, but I was trying to avoid making arguments about anything. I didn’t want anything to get in the way of the investigators experience. The most gutting part of it, after having spent so much time with these doomed individuals, is that these people have had to see this. We are outsourcing that to a handful of people, but around them are rings of spouses and family members who are traumatized by what their relatives have been traumatized by.

Among the things the team had trained to do was lower the visor of fog. It came down around the rest of the world and gave them a protective cloak, a kind of insulation, so that like ghoulish astronauts they could descend and still see past the obvious suffering and gore while maintaining the requisite objectivity. Maintaining a barrier against the cross-contamination of their feelings was as important as the masks and bootees. The sooner they could suit up the better.

The job had already destroyed Karoline once. It was difficult to think that just as the shooter was stepping into the lobby, she was sitting in her therapist’s office, talking about how far she’d come over the past two years. She was no longer suffering from panic attacks or seeing things that weren’t there. She had started therapy in 2010, after putting in for a transfer off the van. The simple reason was that she had burned out. The less-simple reason was that she could no longer go for a walk in the woods without mistaking every flesh-colored rock for human remains. At home, she had become controlling and hypervigilant. Texting her partner, Elissa, 50 times a day, even managing the way Elissa walked the dog. She had begun to see the whole world as a potential crime scene. Cops are notoriously tight-lipped and, with a case like Sandy Hook, I would expect these crime scene investigators would be extremely reluctant to talk with a journalist, especially about their inner lives. How did you persuade them to talk with you? I was just perversely honest when I called them, and I think they believed me when I said I didn’t have an agenda, and if they didn’t believe me the first time, they eventually realized I was focused on their experience and not on any grand opinion about the impossible subject of guns in America. Also, I  just ask lots of dumb questions and that’s probably disarming. You can’t be afraid to reveal how truly stupid you really are when you’re a reporter.

But when she requested the transfer she was persuaded to stay. She told her major and lieutenant she was burned out. She had to leave the unit. “I love what I do,” she said, “but what I do is killing me.” But they said they couldn’t afford to let her go. Besides, wasn’t she only a couple of years from retirement? It was the soldier mentality, being part of a paramilitary organization, that ended up making her cave and decide to start therapy instead. And she had really been turning a corner until she got back in her car after this morning’s session and heard the police radio blowing up. And then flying triple digits down the back roads until she had wound as far as she could up Riverside Road into the bedlam of frantic parents and hundreds of dazed and helpless cops.

I  just ask lots of dumb questions and that’s probably disarming. You can’t be afraid to reveal how truly stupid you really are when you’re a reporter.

When she got out, a panicked mother grabbed her to ask where to go, saying that she couldn’t find her child. She had heard they were gathering parents in the firehouse, so she brought the mother there, and then she went looking for the van. Going up the hill toward the school, where it was cordoned off, was when she first started hearing numbers. A lieutenant she knew said: It’s bad, KK. It’s bad. Besides phone interviews, what other kind of reporting did you do to get to know them as well as you did? I hung out with them a good bit. I would go up to Connecticut and meet with Jeff, or go to Karoline’s house. I went to Jeff’s house. One night the three of us got together at Jeff’s and sat around the fire and drank beer and talked.

IN THE LOBBY everything had been left as it was. The shot-out windows let in the cold dark of early evening. Broken glass, still scattered on the brown-and-white tiled floor, crunched under the soles of the F.B.I. security detail standing by the front door. It was shortly after 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 20, the sixth day since the shooting, and Attorney General Eric Holder sat before the large TV screen that had been set up expressly for his visit. How were you able to reconstruct this scene? I never got Eric to talk to me, but I know what happened from talking to 10 other people who were with him. Margaret, his chief of staff, emailed me after the piece came out and said it was all exactly how it was.

A semicircle of folding chairs had been brought in from the cafeteria for the six detectives of the W.D.M.C. van squad; a handful of detectives from Central and Eastern Major Crimes; the F.B.I. special agents who had assisted over the past week; and the attorney general’s chief of staff. Holder had made the rest of the entourage who accompanied him on his visit to Sandy Hook — local and state politicians, including at least one senator, as well as the colonel of the State Police — wait in the line of gloomy black S.U.V.s while he entered to meet with the crime scene unit on their final day.

The TV screen, mutilated by one intolerable, impossible image after another, gave the attorney general just an abbreviated glimpse of the 1,495 photographs taken by Art Walkley over the past week: an uncensored, unredacted view of what they had faced when they first entered the school. As Jeff took Holder through each image, the only other sound in the lobby was the crinkling and uncrinkling of the tarp that hung over the hallway that led down to Classrooms 8 and 10. With each new image the A.G. seemed to grow smaller in his chair.

Sitting with Karoline was Sam DiPasquale. As a special-agent bomb tech for the F.B.I., stationed in New Haven, Sam first responded to the shooter’s home on Yogananda Street to check for explosives. After he finished there, after running the robot down the hallway to the mother’s bedroom, where she lay shot dead, he went to the school to see if there was anything he could do to help Jeff. They had known each other forever, having met at co-agency explosives and post-blast training sessions. Jeff’s team helped the New Haven office on several occasions. Sam even had them deputized at one point for a domestic-terrorism case. He would now assist them, making sure they had gas for their generators, making sure their team was fed every day, helping secure unusual equipment. He helped put plywood boards up over the windows in the two classrooms, mostly to protect patrol cops securing the perimeter from the impulse to look. In fact, most of his job was fending off all the captains, and majors, and state’s attorneys, and assistant attorneys general, from trying to see what he had to tell them over and over again they would not be able to unsee.

After 9/11, Sam was embedded with the Navy in Iraq, as part of the bureau’s largely unadvertised C.E.X.C. (Combined Explosives Exploitation Cell), deployed to suicide bombings to collect DNA for its database of bomb makers. He had picked limbs from trees. Defused homemade explosives. But the worst thing he’d ever seen was the inside of an elementary school in Connecticut.

Jeff decided that he and Sam would be the only two permitted to have phones inside, in order to limit photographs. They were the first ones there in the morning, and the last to leave at night. When Sam heard the attorney general was going to be visiting Newtown — a few days after President Obama spoke at a vigil at the local high school — he called an F.B.I. buddy he knew would be tasked with the security detail. He said that if possible, the school should be on his itinerary.

Jeff immediately seized on the idea. Sam had found him at one of the decon stations cleaning jewelry. It was something Jeff learned to do from the nurses at Bristol Hospital a million years ago when he was a paramedic. How to clean a piece of jewelry before returning it to the family. It was certainly nothing he learned at the police academy. But being able to perform such a task now, however much of it, was almost soothing after multiple days processing evidence in the tent that was set up initially as the temporary morgue.

Maintaining purpose did not come easily the last seven days and nights. But this was their chance to show the right person what they had seen. And so Sam set about securing everything Jeff said he’d need for the visit. Starting with a giant TV.

After the horrifying PowerPoint slide show, Karoline took Holder and his devastated chief of staff on a walk through the school, holding back the tarp that had concealed the aftermath of where Principal Hochsprung and the school psychologist were shot after running out from a meeting. In the conference room, across from Classroom 8, were 26 banker’s boxes containing each victim’s personal belongings. An old-timer from the van, Ray Insalaco, came in to help box up the desks. It had fallen to him to empty the 20 lunchboxes. His advice to the small crew he brought in: Don’t read the notes. He had already made the mistake when one fluttered out as he was dumping an uneaten lunch into the trash.

Thank God it’s Friday. Love, Mommy.

The A.G. and his chief of staff stood looking dumbly at the plain white boxes, each of the children’s bearing a purple-and-green butterfly name sticker that had come off their backpack hooks, until Karoline guided them into Classroom 10. You reconstruct this heartbreaking story with such evocative details and revelatory, often lyrical, prose. What is your writing process? Ninety percent of it is sequencing. Getting things into the right place first. It’s like Tetris; it’s all ordering. You have all of the details and then you start thinking in terms of scenes and different buckets. This is going to go in this bucket, this in that bucket. It’s like doing the dishes. The glasses have to go over here, and the silverware has to go over here, and the plates go over here, and the plastic Tupperware is over here. You separate things so that you can take small bites.  So every scene and every paragraph is built up of smaller bites, down to sentences, even fact-checking. I highly recommend not having a dishwasher. How do you do it mechanically? Well, first I’m just thinking about it all the time. Lying on the couch thinking about it. Taking walks thinking about it. Reading the interview transcripts over and over until you possess it, or it possesses you. And then when I’m going through transcripts, I’ll do what I call directionals. In brackets, I’ll say this could go with this scene, or this echoes this part, like Jeff’s detail about cleaning jewelry by hand echoes the ending of the story; it foreshadows that. I  prioritize images over ideas. I don’t believe in the polemic or making arguments. I feel like we’ve all learned that’s pointless. You can argue with yourself, but you can’t argue your reader into submission. If your main point is to try and change someone’s mind, it’s not going to happen. I have a line on my bulletin board from John Crowe Ransome’s poem “The World’s Body:” “The image cannot be dispossessed of a primordial freshness which ideas can never claim.” I love that. Images actually communicate. Ideas are mostly useless abstraction. A numbered evidence tag marked where each small body was removed from the defiled carpet. Larger stains divulged where the two teachers fell. This was the same room where Dan Sliby, on their initial walk-through, found himself raging near the body of the shooter. Decades earlier, he was a first-grader in this very room. Pacing around the corpse, he could barely refrain from kicking it in the chest.

By a cluster of desks was the Bushmaster. Its barrel and muzzle brake were coated in a film of white powder. A less experienced observer might have thought that it was concrete dust from bullets hitting the walls. But Dan was sure, from his time in the Marines, that the chalky residue was baked evaporated blood.

Images actually communicate. Ideas are mostly useless abstraction.

Karoline then steered the attorney general, his stride no longer so firm, into Classroom 8. The room where, days before, their resolve wavered. Where they momentarily lost and regained their sense of purpose. Where they all stood in silent disbelief, a light drizzle on the window ticking off each annihilating second, staring into the tiny bathroom. Where the children were packed in so tightly that the inward-hinged door could not be shut all the way. Where Art, who had seen what he had thought must have been every possible reconfiguration of the human body, did not even understand what he was looking at. And where Karoline found herself doing something that came naturally: holding up an imaginary rifle, pointing it into the bathroom, registering the casings on the carpet to her right where the ejection port would have sent them and noting automatically that this was obviously where the shooter would have been standing when he fired the Bushmaster. It was when she felt Jeff looking at her that she dropped the imaginary gun and left the room. How do you draft a story? I print off whatever counts as a manuscript. It might be transcripts or shitty notes from journal notebooks. I’ll print off my drafts and go at it with colored pencils, always working off the material and chipping away at it. I can’t really write on a screen. How do you develop fully-realized characters like Karoline? Part of the character development is developing the physical specifics and the physical details of the job itself and the setting and in every scene, well, what would they be doing? For instance, Karoline telling me that when she was standing outside the bathroom and she found herself just kind of holding up an invisible rifle, looking down into the bathroom — that that’s just something she automatically always did.

She went to the next classroom over, which had been spared. She needed a minute to collect herself. Steve Rupsis followed, struggling to keep his head focused on forensics. He kept asking her what he should do. How should I video this, KK? How should I get the overall shot? Should I sketch the lobby and the classrooms separately? Are we going to sketch? Do you want me to sketch? He was spiraling. She told him what she needed was a minute. He backed away.

That was when Jeff, his face tear-stained, gave them the purpose that they would desperately need to get through the next week.

“Look,” he said, “we’re going to do this the same way we always do it. We’re just going to do it 26 times.” Same thing as always, 26 times. It became like a mantra. We’re going to do what we always do. Same procedures. Same four overall photos of each room. Same medium shots. Same untold number of close-ups to memorialize every minuscule aspect of the work.

They would set up staging tables in the tent for mass processing of the evidence, nothing they’d ever done at this scale. With eight tables it went like an assembly line. Each item photographed against a neutral backdrop. They had a 20-pound roll of butcher paper on the truck just for this purpose. One clean sheet, with a glove change in between, for each item, each piece of clothing. Each small shirt. Each elfin dress. Each backpack. Each barrette. Charm bracelet. Wedding ring. Each bloodied shoe. Same thing as always, 26 times.

Jeff reminded them that something like destiny, however grim and profoundly unwanted, had been laid at their feet. That the country, the world, would come looking for answers was not a question. And if anyone was going to provide the answers, at least to what had happened in these rooms, it would be up to them, but only if they kept their heads. This clarity of purpose was what allowed them to move ahead that day, and to continue on, working 12 and 16 hours, only stopping to get in their cars long enough to drive past the procession of garrisoned media trucks and excruciating makeshift memorials, cairns of teddy bears and stuffed hearts, to sleep a few hours before returning the next morning. Why did you choose a third-person point of view that inhabits the minds of the three main characters, one that focuses primarily on the inner thoughts, feelings and experiences of Jeff, Karoline, and, to a lesser extent, Art? The material I had and the level of disclosure on the part of your subject dictated that approach. Karoline was much more emotionally generous and open. Jeff preferred to talk more about the professional technical aspects of the job. Art was incredibly giving both emotionally and with the technical stuff. I chose the three of them because in a sense, as a team who had worked together forever, they’re basically the same person, deeply bonded. One of the more meaningful parts of what I was getting from my time with them was how protective they were of each other, how protective they were of the dignity of the children who’d been killed, all the victims. It shapes itself as you get deeper into it and realize this is not what it did to them just as individuals but as a group — not just them seeing the violence, but seeing each other go through it.

FROM THE VERY FIRST, they faced resistance. No sooner had they secured the crime scene than the chief medical examiner showed up, plopped down at one of the teacher’s desks and began telling Jeff’s team not to waste time taking photographs. They did not need to be so overzealous. Why didn’t you identify the ME by name or any of the other top officials, except for Attorney General Holder? I only name the people who are part of that crew; that’s a way of highlighting who we’re focusing on. These other people are not even secondary but more tertiary characters. If it’s not a character that you’re going to develop,  I don’t think you always need to name them.

Because the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner had jurisdiction over all bodies in the state of Connecticut, Jeff’s team was not permitted to move or touch a body until the M.E. first signed off. Normally the crime scene unit obtained permission over the phone, or from a representative on site. They knew the M.E. well enough, from various aspects of death investigations, but Karoline recalled only ever seeing him once at a crime scene in her 13 years on the van. Now here he was, barking unsolicited advice, sitting at the desk of a teacher who still lay on the floor near another teacher with a child’s body in her arms. They all knew what happened here, he said, everyone knew it wasn’t going to go to court, at least not criminal, so his own photographers could take all the necessary pictures once they got the bodies to autopsy. The main priority, he insisted, was getting the bodies back to the families. The governor needed to make a statement.

The need to return the bodies to the families as quickly as possible was obviously more than understandable. But not to conduct a full investigation, not to take photos, was unthinkable. And who the hell knew yet if there was even an accomplice? Who knew anything yet? To cut corners, to not document every centimeter of the scene while it was intact, would itself be criminal: a failure that would only leave the families with unanswerable questions. Their own work told a story that no longer existed on the medical examiner’s metal table.

At 8:35 p.m., the bodies were removed and taken to the O.C.M.E., and the governor informed the parents.

The crew worked on. They were interrupted again and again. One day it was the F.B.I. unit that worked on profiles of shooters and serial killers. Other times it was people they felt had no business being there, enough that they began referring to them as the dog and pony shows. A high-ranking official from the L.A.P.D. showed up out of nowhere wanting a special walk-through. Various brass with various justifications. The problem was that during these interruptions it was not as if they could just step outside for a break. The problem was being forced to stop, but never long enough to go through the tedious steps of decon, the process of changing out of their Tyvek, bootees, hairnets, gloves, having to completely re-suit, and so they ended up just standing around, noticing all the little things they had been trying not to notice. Pokémon cards and Little Mermaid this and that, stuff their own kids had at home. The Christmas projects the children had been working on for their parents. The drawings of stick-figure families huddled on the couch reading. The cups of milk still on the children’s desks along with crayons and scissors and sheets of stiff-bright construction paper: the last thing they would get to do in this life before the strange man with yellow plugs in his ears and a loud gun entered.

Karoline was stopped short by something one of the kids had written on the board where they put their big goals for the year. This kid’s was to tie their own shoes. There were other, grander ambitions. “I want to read chapter books.” “I want to learn to count numbers.” “I want to write stories wenn I can.” A stick figure in green shoes announced, “cat to loo gokig tosgy,” because all motives were not as easily articulated, or even articulable. It struck her as immensely cruel that this kid had learned to die before they had learned how to tie their shoes. It made her think back to when she herself had learned to tie her own shoes, practicing on her father’s work boot. She saw it vividly now, smelling of diesel and leather, almost as if it were sitting on one of the desks, eyelets waiting to be laced. It was so simple, in the purest sense of having straightforward purpose. How beyond it we were as adults, she thought; you just tied your shoes in the morning without thinking. Even if it was the only part of your day that made sense. Maybe the whole problem was that our goals as adults were far more make-believe than any goals most kids had. You tied your shoes so they stayed on your feet when you ran! Unlike the simple purpose of the bootees she put over her shoes to prevent the bloodied ground beneath her feet from seeping in and contaminating her ability to impassively bear witness. Did the passage of time between Sandy Hook and now make it more possible to write the story? It helped a lot I think. Karoline is retired. Jeff is in private security. Only Art is still in actual law enforcement, but not CSI. And the passage of time gave me time to digest and think and find the essential story worth focusing on.

The strangest interruption had to be when their lieutenant stopped by to let them know not to pay any attention to the news, but apparently there were people in the outside world saying what they were seeing was not real at all, only an elaborate hoax. They had no idea what to make of this intrusion of sinister make-believe.

When they heard Attorney General Eric Holder was coming, the highest-ranking law enforcement agent in the United States, a policymaker of the highest echelon, they knew it was their one chance. To show the scene as they found it. To present the evidence to the right set of eyes. If what they saw did not shake the country out of its denial, nothing would. We’re pretending things aren’t the way they are, Jeff said.

So there would be no sugarcoating it, not for the attorney general. If they were the ones who would provide the answers that would help break the country from its spell, it first meant waking up the right people. Not the local legislators, not the governor, not the politicians who could all wait in the motorcade fidgeting on their phones with the heat running. It would require only a small but debilitating sample from Art’s camera: a dozen out of the 1,495 seared into his Nikon D300. And they would not present it in a neutral space like the cafeteria. They were going to show him right in the center of the nightmare where they had been working the past hellish week. So he could see it and smell it and feel it under his shoes. So he could see how 80 rounds fired into a three-by-four-foot bathroom trenched the cinder block. How 16 children crammed in that tightly had not had the space to fall where they stood. How innocence could be transformed to gore in an instant.

But even though the attorney general was convinced in this moment, reeling on the threshold of this tiny, obliterated bathroom, that if the American people only saw what he was seeing, Congress would be forced to do the right thing, nothing would change in the end.  Tragedy in America would prevail. Some would say nothing has changed because we have not yet been made to see. After each new mass shooting, the question, the debate, returns. Would seeing the crime-scene photos have an effect on the gun crisis in the same way images of Emmett Till’s body in an open coffin had on the civil rights movement? The Sandy Hook photographs have been redacted by Connecticut state law since 2013. Even if the law were to change with the consent of the families of the victims, who pushed for the legal restriction, public viewing of the photographs would require one outlet or another to first make the decision to publicize the images. And in a culture where reality is no longer agreed on, many will not believe what they see unless it is funneled through their propaganda of choice. So until that unlikely moment arrives, the full truth of these images and those of shooting after shooting, for the decade after Sandy Hook and into the future, will live on only in the atrocity exhibition that exists in the memory of those who photograph, measure and collect the foul evidence.

THE DAY AFTER the van crew left the school for the last time, Karoline’s sister and her partner, Elissa, took her out. Elissa drove her to therapy that morning. Then they went holiday shopping, to get her away from the news. Both were keeping a close eye on her, one on either side like her own personal guardrails, back out in a world where Christmas had not been canceled.

She had agreed to go along. To do a little shopping for her nieces and nephews. At first she thought she was fine. But inside the Christmas Tree Shops, that permanent bazaar of candy canes and singing reindeer, she started to feel overwhelmed by the shimmery music, the red tinsel and the horrific crimson bulbs everywhere. The same kind the kids had been working on for one of their projects. Each red ball branded with a small white handprint and left to dry on the sill in the classroom. Each precariously balanced on a Dixie cup, until Karoline sent them flying while trying to string a bullet hole, measuring the trajectory from where the gun might have been fired. She managed to catch them before she had to find out what the sound of the bulbs shattering on the floor might do to her. Now, in the middle of the store, where Bing Crosby was loudest, and her disgust at the lurid make-believe normalcy was ankle-deep, she was hyperventilating. Then she was fleeing outside. Away from the shoppers with their peppermint lattes oblivious to the dark red abyss at their feet. This scene is so heartbreaking. What’s your method of discovering this kind of material? You have to be obsessive. You’re looking for the right  details — the ones that just move you deeply or seem so evocative. Again, it’s the image over the idea. But then, at a certain point, it’s one that holds the whole story together. You know it’s worth taking the time because they’ll always show up.

What she felt more than anything, out here in the shockingly complacent world, was that she belonged back in the school. It did not feel right to have left them behind.

I get drunk on the idea of just telling everything. You need to take on this mentality. At a certain point, another more sober version takes over.

Most homicide reports took three to four months. She still had a number of cases from before waiting on their own reports. By the time she sat down to begin the Sandy Hook report, it was March.

To spare the others, Art and Karoline decided they would be the only ones who would have to look at the photographs. Karoline rearranged her schedule to work nights. She had two screens set up: photographs on one, scene report on the other. On her desk she had her knight’s helmet for company. Elissa had given it to her as a gift; it was just about big enough for a cat. The thought passed through her mind sometimes that she was a knight in a past life, and this helped in a small way to get through it, to lower the visor, to move forward through the awful spell cast by the images. Why did you use this detail? I think the idiosyncratic detail here and there reminds us that this is real. And real means there are these little endearing oddities everywhere. I guess I feel like it’s important to occasionally nudge the reader or yourself, the writer, with a weird, idiosyncratic detail, just to remind us that there’s just nothing normal going on here. It’s getting inside someone’s head. We all have what we would call strange things, so I try not to filter it out. She told me that for a reason.

Art chose to do his end at home, writing a précis of each of the 1,495 photographs that he had taken, working at his dining room table, headphones on, listening to Pachelbel. His wife played it while pregnant with both of their daughters, and recently she and the girls had been listening to it at bedtime, so it was a way to be with them, he supposed, though the truth was it had been hard. He had found to his horror that at first, for a time, he could not even look at them. He could not give them a hug good night. His wife didn’t understand. On Christmas Day, he could not stay in the room to watch them opening their gifts. He could not stop thinking about what the other parents had done with the presents they bought for their children.

Even as they were reliving it, there were people insisting it was not real. The least welcome of all interruptions for the state police now were calls from nutjobs with bizarre questions and accusations. One day when Karoline was leaving a kickboxing class, the instructor introduced her to another woman who had also been at Sandy Hook. Karoline did not recognize the woman, who said she was a trauma nurse at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, in Hartford, and had been called to help the medical examiner identify the victims. The woman said she had been in the tent and was having trouble getting the faces of the children out of her head. What faces? Karoline thought. And then, after she called the medical examiner, and the director of pediatric trauma at the Children’s Medical Center, and been told that no such person had ever worked at either place, that it was all made up, she confronted the woman, who then broke down and confessed to being a pathological liar. Her real job was at a day care center. It was weird how some people refused to believe, while others who had not seen a thing needed to pretend they had been there.

The work of writing the report was unavoidably retraumatizing. There was no getting around it. But Karoline was all right with it falling to her, in part because it let her return to what she had not felt ready to leave. It allowed her to be back with the children. It also gave her the only degree of purpose she had been able to locate since they had left the school.

Like the red ornaments in the Christmas store, other things had a way of finding her, like getting stuck behind a school bus letting off kids, and of course they would have to be the same age, too small for the ridiculously oversize backpacks. The backpacks left behind in the classrooms were the most haunting remnant of the vanished children. There was also the recurring nightmare in which she was trying to process an active shooting as it unfolded, hiding among the victims, frantically doing her best, trying to take notes, fumbling with evidence bags, sketching what she could, as if processing it would make the shooting stop faster.

In April, she looked up one day and saw a news report: “Just four months after the shocking events at Sandy Hook. … ” The chyron below read: TERROR ATTACK AT BOSTON MARATHON. And she saw Sam DiPasquale on Boylston Street working the blast area for the second bomb. Outside the restaurant with the blown-out windows. This would happen over and over again, too, like the shootings, but all that would come out of it, she thought, were more useless “lessons learned.” Absurd plans to trot out to the public like how teachers or children might disarm a grown man carrying a military-style rifle. The only sure thing was that there would be a next time.

WHEN THE F.B.I. profilers requested another meeting, Karoline felt herself hitting the wall. She was frustrated to have to break her flow to go share information that she did not feel like sharing. But she and Art put together a presentation, along the lines of what they had made for Holder, but much more “aggressive,” as Karoline put it. She had been looking at the photos for months now. How do you decide what to keep and what to cut?  I get drunk on the idea of just telling everything. You need to take on this mentality. At a certain point, another more sober version takes over. But there’s no way that you’re going to know ahead of time how to select. It becomes a gradual process of attrition. It’s like making maple syrup. I’m from Vermont. You gather up hundreds of gallons of sap from trees and you bring it down to the smokehouse and then you boil it down.

It was a small group. The major, there to accompany the feds, sat in the back corner of the conference room.

After it was done she returned to her desk. Ten or 15 minutes later the major came in looking pale. He looked at her. “Oh, my God,” he said.

She did not even look at him. “Yeah?”

He said, “Well, why don’t you take the rest of the day off?” His sickly pale was seeping into the walls.

She looked at him and said: “Major. I don’t need the rest of the day off. We need a fucking break. We need to be off call. You can’t ask us if we want to be off call, because we’re not going to tell you that, we need to be told to be off call. We’re soldiers. We’re going to do what we’re told. Today you got to see some.  A handful of photos, and you’re all blown away. Now you know what I’ve been living.” Narrative nonfiction writers typically rely on quotes, especially dialogue, to propel the action and reveal truths about characters, yet this is the only time you employ this device. Why? She was telling her boss to fuck off and I couldn’t have put it better than she did.

She knew it was insubordinate, conduct unbecoming, but she honestly no longer cared. At this point the protective fog was gone, as if the roof had come off the barracks and the blades of a falling helicopter had blown it out to sea.

THE PROBLEM WAS that it was going to happen again. There had even been a threat against the new school where the surviving children had been moved. Not that Karoline feared they wouldn’t be able to do the job. They would. They would get back on the van; they would be the ones to go back out.

But despite all of the elite training they had, there was none for how to stay sane. She was having heart palpitations. Her general anxiety was heightened. She had become hypervigilant again and more controlling at home. One of the few things that gave her a sense of purpose was when the detective over at Troop A, Rachael Van Ness, a liaison for the families, would call with the most solemn of requests, from a parent who wanted to know where their child had been standing when they had been shot. In that case, Karoline would go back and check the sketch maps and provide the measurements, from one wall to the other, to fix the exact place, so the parents could return before the school was razed and stand where their own flesh had been terrorized and murdered.

On occasion, Rachael would call to ask if Karoline had found something that had not followed a child to autopsy. Things that might have sounded insignificant, like a pencil, or a thermos, but Karoline knew there were no insignificant requests. She would happily drop everything to help by going back into her notes, exhibit reports, the shattering trove of Art’s photos. She would start with the encompassing overall shots, zero in on the mediums, and then the close-ups, until she could find the exact location where the child had been. On the dozen or so occasions when she found something, even if it was small, like a special eraser, it made her feel good.

One day she received a request from this same detective from Troop A, whose job, Karoline felt, must have been infinitely more difficult than hers, not one she would have traded for in a million years. In this instance, a grandmother wanted a piece of jewelry that hadn’t come home with her granddaughter’s things. A tiny heart pendant. The kind that was split in half. The grandmother had one half, and the girl had the other. It was only the size of a pinkie nail. The girl had apparently worn it all the time.

After not finding it in any of the photos, she went down to the evidence room, where Steve Rupsis was evidence officer when he wasn’t on the van, and they pulled the bullet shrapnel. It had all been preserved. Right down to the smallest fragments of copper and lead that Dan Sliby had had to chisel up out of the dense matrix of dried blood inside the bathroom. Then they dumped it out and sorted and picked through it, every piece, to see if the pendant had been swept up with the shrapnel from Classroom 8. Because that was where the girl and her half of the heart had been.

They did not find it. They never would. Why did you choose the futile search for heart-shaped pendant to bring the story to a close? Were alternatives considered? How could it end otherwise? And that was the choice by Jessica Lustig, my editor, to end it on that beat, which I thought was perfect. I had a much longer, different ending and she ended it on that excruciating  gut punch, which was an exquisite editorial choice. What was the emotional cost to you of working on this brutal story? I would just say pretty high. I went into it with a little hubris. Actually, I went into it terrified. I went to visit the Pennsylvania State Police crime scene investigator who had covered the Nickel Mines shooting and he just plopped me down in a chair in his office and opened up his laptop and started showing me the images from that schoolhouse shooting. They were all young girls from the age of 7 or 8 to 14. I had to see a lot of stuff I wish I hadn’t seen. But I was fine. I’m not a tough person, but when I put on the reporter’s hat, I guess it’s like one of those Tyvek shells, and you’re standing in the middle of it, but you think you’re protected. It’s like: let’s go stare into this abyss for a while, let’s see how this goes. I definitely thought that I was okay and then all of a sudden I was not. How long did that last? Oh, a while. It was not good. Most of it was after I finished the story and the following year. It got a huge reception. Let’s just say that I was not really present to celebrate it.

Jay Kirk is the author of “Avoid the Day: A New Nonfiction in Two Movements.” This is his first feature article for the magazine.

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Chip Scanlan is an award-winning writer who taught at the Poynter Institute and now coaches writers around the world. He is the author of several books on writing and the newsletter Chip’s Writing Lessons.

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