Anne Marie Murphy died Friday protecting the children she loved.
As a gunman fired a fusillade of bullets at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., 52-year-old Murphy shielded the bodies of students, authorities told her father, Hugh McGowan of Katonah. Her body was found in a classroom, they told him, covering a group of children who died in the tragic shooting that left 27 dead, including 20 6- and 7-year-olds.
"A first responder said she was a hero," McGowan told Newsday.
A special education teacher, Murphy was raised in Katonah, the sixth of seven children. Her parents described the married mother of four as artistic, a fun-loving painter. Her dad said she was "witty" and "hardworking."
"She was a happy soul," said her mother, Alice McGowan. "She was a very good daughter, a good mother, a good wife."
Gracious and calm in the face of their devastating loss, the 86-year-old parents affectionately described their daughter during an interview in their cozy Katonah home Saturday, which is decked out for the holidays in evergreen wreaths with red bows and ribbons.
Counting children and grandchildren, they were expecting all 37 members of their family to arrive by Christmas Eve. But this Dec. 24, there will only be 36.
"We loved being together," Alice McGowan said softly.
Surrounded by family photos, they spoke of the numbness they felt on Friday as they followed unfolding events on television.
"You don't expect your daughter to be murdered. That's sort of a shocker," Hugh McGowan said in a steady voice. "It happens on TV; it happens elsewhere."
Friday's passing hours grew increasingly painful. "As time went by and [Anne Marie] didn't contact anyone, well, then you're waiting and waiting and waiting," said Alice McGowan.
Once the dreaded news was confirmed, her first reaction was to grab her rosary. And then she wept.
"I've done my crying. Haven't we all?" she said. "I'll miss her presence. She died doing what she loved. She was serving children and serving God."
Early Saturday, the couple attended the regular Mass at St. Mary's of the Assumption in Katonah, where their sorrow wracked the congregation.
Father Paul Waddell said he was preparing to pray at the start of Mass. "But I looked up and saw a lot of teary eyes," the priest recounted. "They told us about their daughter, that she was a teacher, she was killed in Connecticut. So we prayed at this 8 o'clock Mass for all of them and for her."
Police say gunman Adam Lanza committed suicide after the shootings. His mother, Nancy Lanza, a gun enthusiast who was at first mistakenly identified as a school employee, was found dead in her nearby house and is believed to be his first victim.
From there, Adam Lanza went to the school where his attack forced children into hiding in corners and closets, or cowering under their desks; the school's well-liked principal, Dawn Hochsprung, sacrificed her life trying to protect them. Town officials said she died while lunging at the gunman in an attempt to overtake him.
Asked whether Hochsprung is a hero, Jeff Capeci, chairman of the town's Legislative Council, said, "From what we know, it's hard to classify her as anything else."
Before a makeshift memorial in front of Sandy Hook, Janet Robinson, superintendent of Newtown Public Schools, made a brief statement to reporters commending the teachers' acts of heroism.
She said Hochsprung was "running toward the shooter" when she died Friday.
Said Waddell: "The pain will be felt in a personal way for northern Westchester churches close to Connecticut because everyone has family and friends who live just across the border."
Murphy's family asks that donations be sent to Autism Speaks, 1060 State Rd., 2nd Floor, Princeton, NJ 08540 or donated online at www.autismspeaks.org
With Victor Manuel Ramos and Matthew Chayes