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NEWTOWN, Conn. – A man killed his mother at their home and then opened fire Friday inside the elementary school where she taught, massacring 26 people, including 20 children, as youngsters cowered in fear to the sound of gunshots reverberating through the building and screams echoing over the intercom.

The 20-year-old killer, carrying at least two handguns, committed suicide at the school, bringing the death toll to 28, authorities said.

The rampage, coming less than two weeks before Christmas, was the nation’s second-deadliest school shooting, exceeded only by the Virginia Tech massacre that claimed 33 lives in 2007.

“Our hearts are broken today,” a tearful President Obama, struggling to maintain his composure, said at the White House. He called for “meaningful action” to prevent such shootings. “As a country, we have been through this too many times,” he said.

Police shed no light on the motive for the attack. The gunman, Adam Lanza, was believed to suffer from a personality disorder and lived with his mother, said a law enforcement official who was briefed on the investigation but was not authorized to discuss it.

Panicked parents looking for their children raced to Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, a prosperous New England community of about 27,000 people 60 miles northeast of New York City. Police told youngsters at the kindergarten-through-fourth-grade school to close their eyes as they were led from the building so that they wouldn’t see the blood and broken glass.

Schoolchildren – some crying, others looking frightened – were escorted through a parking lot in a line, hands on each other’s shoulders.

Law enforcement officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Lanza killed his mother, Nancy Lanza, and then drove to the school in her car with at least three guns, including a high-powered rifle that he apparently left in the back of the vehicle, and shot up two classrooms. Nancy Lanza was a part-time substitute at the school, according to a parent.

Authorities gave no details on exactly how the attack unfolded. But a custodian ran through the halls, warning of a gunman on the loose, and someone switched on the intercom, alerting people in the building to the attack – and perhaps saving many lives – by letting them hear the hysteria going on in the school office, a teacher said.

Teachers locked their doors and ordered children to huddle in a corner or hide in closets as shots echoed through the building.

State Police Lt. Paul Vance said 28 people in all were killed, including the gunman, and a woman who worked at the school was wounded.

Lanza’s older brother, 24-year-old Ryan, of Hoboken, N.J., was being questioned, but a law enforcement official said he was not believed to have had a role in the rampage. Investigators were searching his computers and phone records, but he told law enforcement he had not been in touch with his brother since about 2010.

At one point, a law enforcement official mistakenly identified the gunman as Ryan Lanza. Brett Wilshe, a friend of Ryan Lanza’s, said Lanza told him the gunman may have had his identification. Updates posted on Ryan Lanza’s Facebook page Friday afternoon read, “It wasn’t me” and “I was at work.”

Theodore Varga was in a meeting with other fourth-grade teachers when he heard the gunfire. He said someone had turned on the intercom so that “you could hear people in the office. You could hear the hysteria that was going on. I think whoever did that saved a lot of people. Everyone in the school was listening to the terror that was transpiring.”

Also, a custodian ran around, warning people there was someone with a gun, Varga said.

“He said, ‘Guys! Get down! Hide!’ ” Varga said. “So he was actually a hero.” The teacher said he did not know if the custodian survived.

On Friday night, hundreds of people packed a Newtown church and stood outside in a vigil for the victims. People held hands, lit candles and sang “Silent Night” at St. Rose of Lima Church.

Anthony Bloss, whose three daughters survived the shootings, said they are doing better than he is. “I’m numb. I’m completely numb,” he said at the vigil.

Mary Pendergast said her 9-year-old nephew was in the school at the time of the shooting but wasn’t hurt after his music teacher helped him take cover in a closet.

Richard Wilford’s 7-year-old son, Richie, told him that he heard a noise that sounded like “cans falling.” The boy said a teacher went out to check on the noise, came back in, locked the door and had the children huddle 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.”

On Friday afternoon, family members were led away from a firehouse that was being used as a staging area, some of them weeping. One man, wearing a T-shirt without a jacket, put his arms around a woman as they walked down the middle of the street, oblivious to everything around them. Another woman with tears rolling down her face walked by, carrying a car seat with a baby inside.

“Evil visited this community today, and it’s too early to speak of recovery, but each parent, each sibling, each member of the family has to understand that Connecticut – we’re all in this together. We’ll do whatever we can to overcome this event,” Gov. Dannel Malloy said.

Adam Lanza and his mother lived in a well-to-do part of Newtown where neighbors are doctors or hold white-collar positions at companies such as General Electric, Pepsi and IBM.

At least three guns were found – a Glock and a Sig Sauer, both pistols, inside the school, and a .223-caliber rifle in the back of a car, authorities said.

Obama’s comments on the tragedy amounted to one of the most outwardly emotional moments of his presidency. “The majority of those who died were children – beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old,” Obama said.

He paused for several seconds to keep his composure as he teared up and wiped an eye. Nearby, two aides cried and held hands as they listened to Obama. “They had their entire lives ahead of them – birthdays, graduations, wedding, kids of their own,” Obama continued about the victims. “Among the fallen were also teachers, men and women who devoted their lives to helping our children.”

Video: Various reports about Connecticut elementary school shooting

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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.

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.

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.

On Friday afternoon, family members were led away from a firehouse that was being used as a staging area, some of them weeping. One man, wearing only a T-shirt without a jacket, put his arms around a woman as they walked down the middle of the street, oblivious to everything around them.

Another woman with tears rolling down her face walked by carrying a car seat with a young infant inside and a bag that appeared to have toys and stuffed animals.

The shootings instantly brought to mind episodes such as the Columbine High School massacre that killed 15 in 1999 and the July shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., that left 12 dead.

“You go to a movie theater in Aurora and all of a sudden your life is taken,” Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis said. “You’re at a shopping mall in Portland, Ore., and your life is taken. This morning, when parents kissed their kids goodbye knowing that they are going to be home to celebrate the holiday season coming up, you don’t expect this to happen. I think as a society, we need to come together. It has to stop, these senseless deaths.”

Obama’s comments on the tragedy amounted to one of the most outwardly emotional moments of his presidency.

“The majority of those who died were children — beautiful, little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old,” Obama said.

He paused for several seconds to keep his composure as he teared up and wiped an eye. Nearby, two aides cried and held hands as they listened to Obama.

“They had their entire lives ahead of them — birthdays, graduations, wedding, kids of their own,” Obama continued about the victims. “Among the fallen were also teachers, men and women who devoted their lives to helping our children.”

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Associated Press writers Jim Fitzgerald in Newtown, Pete Yost in Washington, D.C., and Michael Melia in Hartford contributed to this report.

Some of the deadliest mass shootings around world

July 22, 2011: Confessed mass killer Anders Behring Breivik kills 77 in Norway in twin attacks: a bombing in downtown Oslo and a shooting massacre at a youth camp outside the capital. The self-styled anti-Muslim militant admitted both attacks.

April 28, 1996: Martin Bryant, 29, bursts into cafeteria in seaside resort of Port Arthur in Tasmania, Australia, shooting 20 people to death. Driving away, he kills 15 others. He was captured and imprisoned.

April 16, 2007: Seung-Hui Cho, 23, kills 32 people and himself on Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Va.

Oct. 16, 1991: A deadly shooting rampage took place in Killeen, Texas, as George Hennard opened fire at a Luby’s Cafeteria, killing 23 people before taking his own life; 20 others were wounded in the attack.

July 18, 1984: James Oliver Huberty, an out-of-work security guard, kills 21 people in a McDonald’s restaurant in San Ysidro, Calif. A police sharpshooter kills Huberty.

March 13, 1996: Thomas Hamilton, 43, kills 16 kindergarten children and their teacher in elementary school in Dunblane, Scotland, and then kills himself.

March 11, 2012: Sixteen Afghan villagers, including nine children, are killed during a predawn attack in which Army prosecutors have charged Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 39.

Aug. 19, 1987: Michael Ryan, 27, kills 16 people in small market town of Hungerford, England, and then shoots himself dead after being cornered by police.

Aug. 1, 1966: Charles Whitman opened fire from the clock tower at the University of Texas at Austin, killing 16 people and wounding 31. He is shot dead by a police officer.

Aug. 20, 1986: Pat Sherrill, 44, a postal worker who was about to be fired, shoots 14 people at a post office in Edmond, Okla. He then kills himself.

Nov. 5, 2009: Thirteen soldiers and civilians were killed and more than two dozen wounded when a gunman entered the Soldier Readiness Processing Center at Fort Hood, Texas, and opened fire. Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Hasan is charged in the killings.

April 26, 2002: Robert Steinhaeuser, 19, who had been expelled from school in Erfurt, Germany, kills 13 teachers, two former classmates and a policeman, before committing suicide.

July 20, 2012: Twelve people are killed when a gunman enters an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, releases a canister of gas and then opens fire during opening night of the Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises.” James Holmes, a 24-year-old former graduate student at the University of Colorado, has been charged in the deaths.

April 30, 2009: Farda Gadyrov, 29, enters the prestigious Azerbaijan State Oil Academy in the capital, Baku, armed with an automatic pistol and clips. He kills 12 people before killing himself as police close in.

April 20, 1999: Students Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, opened fire at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., killing 12 classmates and a teacher and wounding 26 others before killing themselves in the school’s library.

March 10, 2009: Michael McLendon, 28, killed 10 people – including his mother, four other relatives, and the wife and child of a local sheriff’s deputy – across two rural Alabama counties. He then killed himself.

Sept. 23, 2008: Matti Saari, 22, walks into a vocational college in Kauhajoki, Finland, and opens fire, killing 10 people and burning their bodies with firebombs before shooting himself fatally in the head.

June 18, 1990: James Edward Pough shoots people at random in a General Motors Acceptance Corp. office in Jacksonville, Fla., killing 10 and wounding four, before killing himself.

Dec. 6, 1989: Marc Lepine, 25, bursts into Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique college, shooting at women he encounters, killing nine and then himself.

Nov. 7, 2007: After revealing plans for his attack in YouTube postings, 18-year-old Pekka-Eric Auvinen shoots and kills eight people at his high school in Tuusula, Finland. He dies of self-inflicted gunshot wound.

July 12, 1976: Edward Charles Allaway, a custodian in the library of California State University, Fullerton, fatally shot seven fellow employees and wounded two others.

Aug. 5, 2012: Army veteran Wade Michael Page kills five men and one woman and wounds three other people, including a police officer, before taking his own life at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin outside Milwaukee.

Jan. 8, 2011: A gunman kills six people and wounds 13 others, including then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, in a shooting spree outside a grocery store in Tucson, Ariz. Doctors say Jared Lee Loughner, who has been charged in the deaths, suffers from schizophrenia.