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Sunnyside weeps for Sandy Hook

Dozens of neighborhood residents gather at Sunnyside Reformed Church on Skillman Avenue to participate in a candlelight vigil honoring the memories of Newtown, Conn. shooting victims, Dawn Hochsprung and Benjamin Wheeler.
TimesLedger Newspapers

More than 200 residents, many of them young children, gathered in Sunnyside Gardens Park Tuesday evening, holding candles and singing songs for two victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre

“We’re shocked, we’re saddened, we’re devastated and we’re deeply, deeply angry,” Sunnyside resident Roger Hitts said.

The march was held for friends and family members of 6-year-old Benjamin Wheeler and Principal Dawn Hochsprung, two of the 26 killed in the massacre Friday in Newtown, Conn.

City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) said that before the Wheelers moved to Connecticut a few years ago, Francine Wheeler was an active member of Sunnyside Gardens Park. One of her friends who requested the vigil visited her after the massacre.

“When they left, they left a lot of good friends and those friends remain very close to the family,” Van Bramer said.

Adam Lanza, 20, shot his mother Nancy before driving to the school in her car while dressed in combat gear and armed with two semiautomatic pistols and a semiautomatic rifle. Lanza killed 20 children and six adults before shooting himself inside the school, authorities said.

The councilman said he organized the neighborhood candlelight vigil after good friends of Benjamin’s mother, one of whom he met at a Girl Scouts event in Sunnyside, asked him to arrange a community memorial. Hochsprung’s stepsister, a Sunnyside resident, also visited Van Bramer’s office Monday.

“I think everyone is just trying to find some comfort and some way to come together and process and understand and show love for the families who did lose a child,” Van Bramer said.

Mourners marched up 48th Street and east on 39th Avenue to Sunnyside Gardens Park, where Francine Wheeler spent time with Benjamin, her 9-year-old son Nate and residents of the neighborhood.

Many shared memories of Ben and Francine.

“He was a peaceful little boy,” said friend Jennifer Busnel. “So sweet and kind — the kindest most beautiful eyes filled with so much love.”

Francine Wheeler did not attend the ceremony Tuesday, but approved it before it was held.

Members of Sunnyside Moms Yahoo group, which she started, read a letter on her behalf.

“There are no words to express our gratitude for the honor you have given Ben this night,” the letter said.

Nicole Perkins, Hochsprung’s stepsister, also thanked the community.

She said she was gratified to know Hochsprung tried to save the students when Lanza attacked.

“It really makes it easier to know that she was such a hero,” Perkins said.

Van Bramer said the vigil was important for members of the community shocked by the tragedy, but especially for the children of Sunnyside who may be hearing about the massacre in the media and may need to feel safe.

“You didn’t have to know somebody who died in order to be terribly affected by it,” he said. “It’s just unfathomable and unspeakable what happened.”

The councilman said that in the wake of the tragedy it is time to “enact really tough, meaningful gun control legislation.”

“We can’t have this happen again,” Van Bramer said. “We can’t.”

Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at rhenely@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.

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