Dec. 18, 2012 at 10:34 AM ET
When six young survivors of the shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn., turned up at the end of Gene Rosen’s driveway Friday morning, he couldn’t believe what they told him: They couldn’t return to their school because a man with guns had killed their teacher.
Faced with the terrified first graders and unaware of the massacre that had just taken place across the street at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Rosen didn’t rely on his training as a psychologist to comfort the children. Instead, he called upon his experience as a loving grandparent, inviting the scared students into his home for fruit juice.
“I comforted them because I’m a grandfather,” said Rosen, 69.
In an emotional interview on TODAY Tuesday morning, Rosen recounted coming upon the four boys and two girls who somehow managed to escape the classroom of Victoria Soto, a beloved teacher who was among the victims of the deadly school shooting.
“They were mortified,” Rosen said. “They were crying. They were upset.”
When Rosen first saw the children, they were being tended to by a bus driver who kept telling them in a loud voice that everything would be all right. The world did not yet know that a gunman had killed 20 students and six adults inside the school in one of the worst mass shootings in the nation’s history.
“‘We can’t go back to the school,’” the children told Rosen, who broke down as he recalled their words. “‘We can’t...we can’t go back to the school because our teacher is gone.’”
Rosen could not process that news. “I could not believe that,” he said. “I could not take that in.”
As Rosen tried to understand their words, one of the boys described the shooter, saying, “He had a big gun and a little gun.”
"I could not fathom what they were talking about and then they talked about Mrs. Soto: ‘Our teacher. She’s gone,’” Rosen said.
Rosen’s grandfatherly ways shone through in the crisis, as he tried to find ways to help the fearful students. He asked them to come inside and wanted to read to them, but they were too upset.
“My grandson and my granddaughter have taught me how to be with children,” Rosen said. “I went upstairs to my grandson’s toy box and I brought down all these stuffed animals and I gave one to each of the children.”
Slowly, the children began to calm down.
“It was my grandchildren who taught me how to be with these children,” a teary Rosen said. “I am so thankful for that.”