NORTH ADAMS -- A crowd of 40 people gathered at the First Baptist Church on Friday night to remember those lost in Friday's deadly Newtown, Conn., school shooting. The group, which included seniors, parents with their children, and college students, were led in prayer by Rev. David Anderson following the day's tragic events.
Anderson said he wasn't in attendance only as a pastor, but also as a father.
"I don't want my first and only response to be anger," he said. "I want my response to be prayer, and I want my response to be to hold my four-year-old son closer tonight."
The shootings Friday began just after 9:30 a.m. at Sandy Hook Elementary School, about 60 miles northeast of New York City.
The death toll of 28 -- 26 victims plus the gunman and his mother -- made it the nation's second-deadliest school shooting, exceeded only by the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007.
The killer, armed with two handguns and a .223-caliber rifle, committed suicide. The gunman was identified as 20-year-old Adam Lanza, the son of teacher Nancy Lanza.
Anderson explained any anger he had toward Adam Lanza has become sadness.
"I'm sad that he became so broken and despairing that he felt that this was what he needed to do."
Anderson also opened the floor to attendees.
"I can't help but think the gunman is mentally ill," city resident Kate Drury told the audience. "What was a mentally ill person doing with a gun? There are things we can do to prevent ill people from doing these things."
Shelby Giaccarini, a teacher's aid in a Greylock Elementary School Kindergarten class, said she heard about the shooting after leaving school mid-day for a dentist appointment.
"Coming back to school was eerie," she said. "I saw all these five- and six-year-olds and thought, ‘This could have happened here.' "
Anderson led the audience in prayer for families affected by the shooting, first responders, investigators, and also the family of the gunman. He encouraged people to turn off television coverage tonight.
"This will be with us for weeks, months," he said. "Don't be so buried in this story that you miss everything else going on this season."
Following the prayer, Anderson invited the audience for a candlelight vigil on the church's front steps.
In the small Connecticut town, the mass shooting that left 20 elementary school students dead stunned residents and found the young friends of the victims recounting tales of horror.
"I heard gunshots; I was under a desk with three or four other people," said Luie Munguia, an 8-year-old third-grader.
He spoke in the late morning near the school with his mother, Lindsay Sweeney, and grandmother, Kathy Sweeney.
"It is surreal, like something out of a movie. ... I'm just praying for everyone," Lindsay Sweeney said.
Richard Wilson, 36, of Sandy Hook, Conn., said he and his wife were home when they got the call there was a shooting at their son's school.
Like many parents, they raced to the school, becoming part of a crime scene that quickly spread through the neighborhood.
Sarah Walker Carson, a former New Haven (Conn.) Register reporter, said her young son, Will, was in the school at the time of the shooting.
"I've never been more terrified in my life," she said. "My heart was pounding. I couldn't race fast enough [to the school]."
"It's the most terrible moment of a parent's life -- you have no idea," Richard Wilson said.
Their son, Richie, 7, later said the shots sounded like "really loud pots were banging."
A tearful President Obama addressed the country just after 3 p.m.
"I know there is not a parent in America who doesn't feel the same overwhelming grief that I do," said Obama, who paused several times during his remarks to compose himself. "The majority of those who died today were children, beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old. "They had their entire lives ahead of them. birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own."
He promised action to prevent such tragedies again but did not say what that would be.
Connecticut Gov. Daniel Malloy, spoke briefly at a press conference and said, "It's a tragic, tragic scene."
Material from Michael Topel of Digital First Media was used in this report.