EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — Matthew Bell thought he would never again experience an event as momentous as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when he helped people evacuate lower Manhattan as a member of the Coast Guard.
Then came the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
The Connecticut state trooper remembered the chaos and heartbreak of the Newtown massacre as he and dozens of other people received state police awards Tuesday for their outstanding and meritorious service in response to the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting.
Bell, 39, was among the first law enforcement officers to enter the school and see the carnage after gunman Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 first-graders and six educators. Lanza, who also killed his mother at their Newtown home before going to the school, shot himself to death as police arrived.
While receiving an award is an honor, Bell said, he's always been more concerned about the well-being of the victims' families. He said he and many other responders were traumatized by what they saw, but he can't imagine the pain of losing a child.
"I think we all lost a piece of ourselves at that school. But the families, they lost loved ones," Bell, a father of three, said after the awards ceremony inside the University of Connecticut's football stadium.
"I can't really describe how it's changed me. Family-wise, you really, really look at your own children now," he said. "When you say goodbye to them, you give them that extra hug and kiss."
Connecticut State Police honored more than 300 people, including state and local police, firefighters, emergency dispatchers, paramedics, psychiatrists and forensic examiners.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who personally delivered the terribly news to the victims' families that day, commended the award recipients.
"In the midst of disaster and despair, so many in Connecticut rose to the occasion," Malloy told the stadium audience. "What I witnessed after the fact was men and women of our community, of our state, of this (state police) department and other departments responding in unbelievable and brave fashion."
State and local police from across Connecticut swarmed the school to help Newtown authorities deal with the shooting. Some officers, like Bell, were among the first to arrive; others handled duties in the days that followed, including assignments full-time to the victims' families.
Bell was driving his cruiser to a gym to work out on his day off when he heard the calls going out over the police radio. He was two towns away and raced to Newtown, where he encountered a confusing scene of emergency responders and local residents.
Bell said he went inside the school not knowing if the shooter was still alive.
"It was chaos initially," Bell said. "Our first job was to get as many kids safely out of the building as possible."
He said it wasn't too long before police were notified the shooter was dead. Tuesday, he didn't want to talk about what he saw in the classrooms that day.
Bell said he appreciates the award and hopes it serves as an example for his children.
"I do my job for my family," he said. "I want my kids growing up and thinking of me as their super hero. And if this (the award) allows that to happen, then that's great."