Two days after the shootings at Sandy Hook School that took the lives of 20 children and six faculty members, Greg Gnandt woke up with a vision: stars, trailing through the sky.
“The night of the shooting I kept hearing people talk about the children and adults as being new stars in the sky,” Mr Gnandt said on New Year’s Day, just a few hours after a visit to Sandy Hook.
Mr Gnandt and a crew of volunteers were at the Sandy Hook Fire main station on January 1, affixing 26 copper stars to the roof of the Riverside Road firehouse. It took about four hours to attach the stars, which have become one of the first permanent memorials to honor those whose lives were cut short at the school within walking distance of the fire station.
“Sunday morning [December 16] I woke up and thought, ‘This is what I have to do,” said the 43-year old former Sandy Hook resident, who originally envisioned 26 copper stars along the side of the firehouse.
The southwest side of Sandy Hook’s station runs parallel to Dickinson Drive, which leads to Sandy Hook School. Mr Gnandt’s original plan was to have the stars on that side of the building.
“But as big as the building is, it’s not large enough to facilitate what we wanted,” he said.
So the plan was changed, and the stars moved to the roof, greeting passersby as they travel along Riverside Road or as they approach from Sunnyview Terrace, which runs perpendicular to the front of the firehouse.
Another change was the layout of the stars. Mr Gnandt had first envisioned large stars to represent the faculty members, small stars for the students, and rows of stars on the roof.
“But I didn’t like that uniform look,” said Mr Gnandt, who credits graphic designer Jeff “Bones” Gazerro with the meandering design that now graces the 2,600-square-foot section of firehouse roof that houses the artwork. “He laid out that new design, and we liked it right away.”
One of Mr Gnandt’s cousins is Anthony Capozziello, assistant chief of Sandy Hook Fire & Rescue. Mr Gnandt contacted his cousin to tell him about his idea. Mr Capozziello in turn said that a meeting with Sandy Hook Chief Bill Halstead needed to be arranged before anything could move forward. That meeting took place on December 26.
“I told them to just run with it,” Chief Halstead said. The chief was at his firehouse last Tuesday “for part of the installation,” he said, and then saw the finished project “for a few minutes” the following morning. “It looks good to me,” he said.
Once Mr Gnandt received permission from Chief Halstead and the layout was reconfigured, “The whole process just flowed,” he said.
Mr Gnandt is a coppersmith, general contractor and carpenter based in Trumbull. He specializes in old house restoration. His first big job, however, was construction.
“I met Tim Currier [the owner of Sticks and Stones Farms on Huntingtown Road] when I was 18 years old and he hired me to build a barn at his farm,” Mr Gnandt said. Mr Gnandt lived in the second floor of the large barn for a while, he said, and continues to help the Currier family with renovations and caretaking at their property.
“I find my peace there,” he said.
Mr Gnandt reached out to friends, family and fellow contractors for help. He was overwhelmed with positive response.
“All of the contractors [I have spoken to] jumped onboard within 15 minutes [of being approached]. Today’s labor,” he said of the New Year’s Day installation, “was 100 percent free. The materials were all donated, or the costs were covered.”
Each star used one sheet of copper for its creation. Mr Gnandt’s family members jumped at the chance to be allowed to sponsor the cost of sheets of copper, he said.
The stars are two different sizes. The children are represented by stars that are 5 feet from point to point, while the stars for the adults are 7 feet. They have not been cut out from single piece of flat copper, but formed from a number of pieces of copper into stars that raise in the center, coming to a point.
“There is a lot of work involved in these stars,” said Mr Gnandt, who began creating the three-dimensional symbols as gifts “about six or seven years ago,” he said. He had taken a break from the stars for a few years, but pulled out his familiar tools and patterns after December 14. “There is a lot of geometry in these things that people take for granted,” he said.
"A New Beginning"
On January 1 Mr Gnandt was joined by a crew made up of Matt Hurley, Eric Lee, Lenny Sabia, Craig Schultz, Adrian Szietowski and Guy Veneruso. Mr Gnandt loaded his truck and supplies by 7 am in Trumbull. His crew met him at 9, and everyone — including his girlfriend and a pack of cousins — had arrived in Sandy Hook by 10:30. The installation began at 11, and was finished around 3 pm.
The work was a curiosity for many in the area. Residents who had just waved farewell to news crews that had been camped at the end of Sunnyview Terrace and along Riverside Road since the morning of Friday, December 14, were for a few hours treated instead to the sight of copper stars being carried up a ladder, while Mr Gnandt and his friends put them in place and attached them. Anthony Capozziello operated the fire company’s ladder truck for a few hours, helping to get men and equipment to the roof.
Meanwhile, many others from outside the area were still visiting the intersection of Riverside Road and Dickinson Drive, where until just a few days earlier temporary memorials had been in place for the Sandy Hook School victims. The memorials had been removed during the overnight of December 28–29, but most people from out of the area did not (and still do not) realize that. Many people showed up with flowers or other items and left them at the corner of Dickinson and Riverside roads, before walking over to the front of the firehouse to watch the stars being installed.
A January 1 installation was Mr Gnandt’s target almost from the beginning, he said.
“It was a good time,” he said. “A new beginning.”
“I also wanted to wait until the funerals were done, and the worst of the chaos gone from town.”
The stars have been clear coated so that they will not tarnish, and Mr Gnandt has already promised Chief Halstead that he will also take care of any necessary maintenance.
“I wanted to do something that would show respect,” the artist said of his decision to go with stars, at the firehouse. “I also decided to do the clear coating because I want these stars to stay shiny.”
“You can allow copper to develop a patina, that deep green copper can get,” he said, “but this [staying shiny] was important. When you see the pictures of these kids, they were all bright and shiny.”
He had considered creating stars with stainless steel, he said, “but they didn’t glow. There were no reflective qualities. They just didn’t shine. It wasn’t an option.”
While the stars are already on view for all to see, Mr Gnandt is hoping to have a formal dedication ceremony within the month.
A bronze plaque to be installed at the firehouse will include a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Hitch Your Wagon To A Star”) and also a replication of the stars as they have been laid on the roof. Each star on the plaque will be accompanied by the name of one of the victims. The cost of the 6-foot-long-by-2- foot-tall plaque, as with the rest of the project, is being covered through donations.
Mr Gnandt learned on January 2 that the plaque, worth at least $7,500, will be donated.
“This is the time of my life when I can give back, and this is what I needed to do,” said Mr Gnandt, who called his work “a personal passion project that just evolved.” He knew at least two of the children who were killed last month, and his voice caught when he spoke of the full group of women and children who died that sunny Friday morning.
“The stars are shining now,” he said January 1. “Those kids are stars, and those adults, who gave their lives, they’re stars too. They all are.”