Jen Maksel knows she’s one of the lucky ones. Her 7-year-old son, Bryce, escaped last Friday’s carnage by fleeing hero teacher Vicki Soto‘s classroom when the gunman looked away. But that doesn’t mean it’s been easy. Her son lost three of his best friends, several classmates and two of his beloved teachers that day.
“I’m completely exhausted,” she tells PEOPLE this week as Newtown, Conn., sees funeral after funeral, tiny coffin after tiny coffin. “It’s just so sad.”
Last Friday morning Maksel, 42, was just drifting off to sleep after working an overnight shift then putting her kids on the bus when her phones began ringing off the hook. Before she could answer them, a neighbor began pounding on her front door yelling, “There’s a school shooting at Sandy Hook!”
She jumped in her car and headed to the school.
“I parked on the side of the road and just ran to the firehouse,” she says. “Most of it is a blur because I was in total panic trying to find Bryce. Bryce’s friends’ mothers were there, too, doing the same thing. It was total chaos. I was crying hysterically.”
Her ex-husband, Steve, was there as well. They spent a harrowing three hours at the Sandy Hook firehouse waiting for word about their son’s fate.
“They were lining the surviving kids up by class,” says Jen, a respiratory therapist who lives in Sandy Hook. “In Bryce’s class all I saw were five kids. I couldn’t stop crying because Bryce wasn’t one of them.”
Not long afterward another mom told Jen that five kids who’d escaped were at the Newtown police station. “She said two moms found them running down the road a half mile from the school,” Jen says. “She didn’t know which kids they were, though.”
Jen immediately called the Newtown police who told her, “We have [your son],” she recalls. “I almost passed out.”
When she and Steve got to the police station, “I burst into tears, grabbed Bryce and hugged him.” It was “bittersweet,” she says. “I was relieved I found him but I was worried about the other kids. We hadn’t heard yet who had died. Not knowing was hard but we were all focused on our kids. The parents were all embracing.”
The police did their best to make the entire experience as easy on the parents and kids as possible, she says. “They were absolutely wonderful,” she says. “My Place Pizza restaurant brought them pizza. We had Capri Suns. Somebody brought a whole bunch of Webkinz and he has one of them. They got police badges and a whole bunch of stuff.”
We Just Kept Running
When it came time to be interviewed by police, Bryce “was very calm about it,” she says. “He said [of gunman Adam Lanza], ‘He looked at all of us, then he turned around toward our teacher and all five of us ran,’ ” she recounts. “He said, ‘We just kept on running. We didn’t know when to stop.'”
Listening to his story “just broke our hearts,” she says. “He watched him shoot his teacher and his friends. At one point Bryce said to me, ‘Are you happy that I was brave, mom?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.'”
Jen also talked about how eternally grateful she is for all the support she’s gotten – from her co-workers at Danbury Hospital, who offered to donate their vacation days to her, to friends and neighbors, to the police officers, whose compassionate and sensitive treatment of her son has gone a long way toward helping the healing process begin.
Last Saturday, Connecticut state trooper Jason Cassavechia brought Bryce a state trooper teddy bear that he’d received as an award for bravery. “He gave Bryce this bear for his own bravery,” says Jen. “It brought a smile to his long face immediately.”
Then on Wednesday, Bryce got another surprise: the return of his beloved stuffed animal Yoshi, which he took to school with him everyday but had been missing since the shooting.
“He kept saying the gunman shot Yoshi,” Jen says. After hearing that, Fairfield Police Lt. Mike Gagner, who interviewed Bryce about the shooting, got “a bit obsessed” about finding the toy. With the help of the state police major crime squad, they found it in Bryce’s backpack, safe and sound.
“Any other officer would have done the same thing,” says Gagner. “I’m just glad it made him smile – he is just a sweet boy.”
Meanwhile, one week after the shooting, Bryce is doing much better, Jen says. “He’s back to his crazy, mischievous self. … He doesn’t talk about it anymore.”