NEWTOWN, Conn. — A gunman opened fire inside a Connecticut elementary school where his mother worked Friday, killing at least 26 people, including 18 children, by blasting his way through the building as young students cowered helplessly in classrooms while their teachers and classmates were shot.
The attack, coming less than two weeks before Christmas, appeared to be the nation's second-deadliest school shooting, exceeded only by the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007.
The death toll — 26 victims plus the gunman — was given to The Associated Press by an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was still under way.
Panicked parents raced to Sandy Hook Elementary School, about 60 miles northeast of New York City, looking for their children in the wake of the shooting. Students were told to close their eyes by police as they were led from the building.
Robert Licata said his 6-year-old son was in class when the gunman burst in and shot the teacher.
"That's when my son grabbed a bunch of his friends and ran out the door," he said. "He was very brave. He waited for his friends."
He said the shooter didn't utter a word.
A photo taken by The Newtown Bee newspaper showed a group of young students — some crying, others looking visibly frightened — being escorted by adults through a parking lot in a line, hands on each other's shoulders.
The suspect was 24-year-old Ryan Lanza, whose mother, Nancy, works at the school, a law enforcement official said. His younger brother was being held for questioning as a possible second shooter, the official said.
Ryan Lanza's girlfriend and another friend were missing in New Jersey, the official also said. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the source was not authorized to speak on the record about the developing criminal investigation.
Students and staff were among the victims, state police Lt. Paul Vance said a brief news conference. He also said the gunman was dead inside the school, but he refused to say how people were killed.
Stephen Delgiadice said his 8-year-old daughter was in the school and heard two big bangs. Teachers told her to get in a corner, he said.
"It's alarming, especially in Newtown, Connecticut, which we always thought was the safest place in America," he said. His daughter was fine.
Andrea Rynn, a spokeswoman at the hospital, said it had three patients from the school but she did not have information on the extent or nature of their injuries.
Mergim Bajraliu, 17, heard the gunshots echo from his home and ran to check on his 9-year-old sister at the school. He said his sister, who was fine, heard a scream come over the intercom at one point. He said teachers were shaking and crying as they came out of the building.
"Everyone was just traumatized," he said.
Richard Wilford's 7-year-old son, Richie, is in the second grade at the school. His son told him that he heard a noise that "sounded like what he described as cans falling."
The boy told him a teacher went out to check on the noise, came back in, locked the door and had the kids huddle up in the corner until police arrived.
"There's no words," Wilford said. "It's sheer terror, a sense of imminent danger, to get to your child and be there to protect him."
The White House said Barack Obama was notified of the shooting and his spokesman Jay Carney said the president had "enormous sympathy for families that are affected."
Associated Press writers Jim Fitzgerald in Newtown, Pete Yost in Washington, D.C., and Michael Melia in Hartford contributed to this report.