The bodies of 20 children and six adults slaughtered by a gunman in a quiet Connecticut town were removed from the blood-soaked school Saturday as police searched for a motive in the massacre.
The formal identification of the victims in one of America's worst mass shootings marked a new chapter for horrified residents of Newtown, Connecticut, where Friday morning a 20-year-old man walked in with at least two powerful pistols and shot everyone he could find in two rooms of the Sandy Hook Elementary School.
By early this morning, authorities were able to "positively identify all of the victims" and formally notify their families, said Connecticut State Police spokesman Lieutenant Paul Vance.
The removal of bodies, which were initially left for investigators, "has been accomplished," he said on CBS television. "That was done overnight."
The gunman, identified by U.S. media as Adam Lanza, shot dead 18 children inside the school and two more died of their wounds shortly afterwards. Six adults, including the school principal, perished before the gunman died -- apparently in a suicide.
He also is believed to have shot his mother in her house in the town prior to driving to the school, armed to the teeth and clad in black.
Authorities have offered few clues as to the motive for the shootings in Newtown, a wooded and picturesque small town northeast of New York City.
Vance said investigators had to "peel back the onion, layer by layer and examine every crack and crevice" of the school.
"The detectives will analyze everything and put a complete picture together of the evidence that they did obtain. We're hopeful, we're hopeful that tell paint a complete picture as to how and why this entire incident, unfortunate incident occurred," he told a news conference.
New details emerged of the horror that unfolded early Friday, shortly after classes started at the well regarded public school, where a new security system had just been installed.
Vance said the shooter forced his way in. Police then entered from several points, breaking "many windows" as they frantically tried to get survivors out and to locate the gunman.
Mary Ann Jacob, who works in the school library, told reporters Saturday that she had sheltered 18 children during the mayhem.
"We were locked in our room," she said. "It was hard to keep them quiet. We told them it was joke, I think they didn't really know what was going on."
Late Friday, as darkness fell over the town, locals gathered for a church vigil, spilling out onto the street in large numbers.
"This is a kind of community, when things like that happen, they really pull together," the priest, Robert Weiss, said during the Roman Catholic Mass.
A letter from Pope Benedict XVI was also read during the service.
The pope "has asked me to convey his heartfelt grief and the assurance of his closeness in prayer to the victims and their families, and to all affected by the shocking event," Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone said in the letter.
"Our faith is tested," state Governor Dan Malloy told the congregants. "Not just necessarily our faith in God, but our faith in community, and who we are, and what we collectively are."
Of all U.S. campus shootings, the toll was second only to the 32 murders in the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech university.
The latest number far exceeded the 15 killed in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, which triggered a fierce but inconclusive debate about the United States' relaxed gun control laws.
However, the White House on Friday scotched any suggestion that the politically explosive subject would be quickly reopened.
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