NEWTOWN, Conn. — For a third straight day Wednesday, funeral processions rolled through a grieving Connecticut town trying to make sense of the massacre of 20 first-graders and six adults in an elementary school less than two weeks before Christmas.
A 7-year-old boy who had dreamed of being a firefighter and a heroic first-grade teacher who died while trying to shield students from the carnage were among the victims laid to rest in what has become an unrelenting cycle of sorrow and loss.
"The first few days, all you heard was helicopters. Now at my office all I hear is the rumble of motorcycle escorts and funeral processions going back and forth throughout the day," said Dr. Joseph Young, an optometrist who said he had already been to one funeral and would be going to several more.
Students in Newtown returned to school Tuesday, except those from Sandy Hook Elementary, where a gunman armed with a military-style assault rifle slaughtered the children and six teachers and administrators last Friday. He also killed his mother at her home.
Students at Sandy Hook, which serves kindergarten through fourth grade, will resume classes in a formerly shuttered school in a neighboring community in January.
In Newtown, Education Secretary Arne Duncan held a closed meeting with Sandy Hook Elementary staff, and also planned to attend the wake of slain principal Dawn Hochsprung.
In what has become a dark rite of passage in America, survivors of Minnesota's 2005 school shooting on the Red Lake Indian Reservation that killed 10, including the gunman, traveled to Connecticut to offer comfort to the community. They said they sought to repay the support they received nearly eight years ago from survivors of the Columbine High School killings in Colorado.
In the meantime, mourners overlapped at back-to-back funerals that started Monday and will continue all week.
The first of Wednesday's funerals was for 7-year-old Daniel Barden, a gap-toothed redhead and the youngest of three children whose family called "a constant source of laughter and joy."
"Always smiling, unfailingly polite, incredibly affectionate, fair and so thoughtful toward others," the family said of the boy.
Hundreds of firefighters formed a long blue line outside St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church as bells sounded and bagpipes played. Daniel wanted to join their ranks one day, and many came from New York, where his family has relatives who are firefighters.
Family friend Laura Stamberg of New Paltz, N.Y., whose husband plays in a band with Daniel's father, Mark, said Daniel was a thoughtful boy who held doors for people and would sit with another child if he saw one sitting alone.
She said that on the morning of the shooting, Mark Barden played a game with his son and taught him a Christmas song on the piano.
"They played foosball and then he taught him the song and then he walked him to the bus and that was their last morning together," Stamberg said.
At the same time, in the town of Stratford, family and friends gathered to say goodbye to Victoria Soto, a 27-year-old teacher who was killed while trying to shield her students, some of whom managed to escape.
"She had the perfect job. She loved her job," said Vicky Ruiz, a friend of Soto's since first grade.
Every year, she said, Soto described her students the same way. "They were always good kids. They were always angels," even if, like typical first-graders, they might not always listen, Ruiz said.
Students Charlotte Bacon and Caroline Previdi were to be laid to rest later Wednesday, and a wake was held for Hochsprung, the school's popular 47-year-old principal. She and school psychologist Mary Sherlach rushed toward gunman Adam Lanza in an attempt to stop him and paid with their lives.
No indication has been made publicly about the motive of the 20-year-old Lanza, who, clad all in black, broke into Sandy Hook Elementary and opened fire on students and staff.
Investigators have found no letters or diaries that could explain the attack.