Neil Heslin, who lost his 6-year-old son in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, on Friday visited the new school that was built on the site

By K.C. Baker
Updated October 05, 2016 06:19 PM
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Credit: Courtesy Scarlett Lewis

[BRIGHTCOVE ““5066750088001”” “” “” “auto” ]Neil Heslin hadn’t been back to Sandy Hook Elementary School since December 2012, soon after his 6-year-old son, Jesse Lewis, was killed there along with 19 other first graders and six educators, in one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.

On Friday, Heslin, 55, returned to stand on “sacred ground” – the exact spot where the students and educators were killed. It’s a grassy mound which now sits in the parking lot of the new Sandy Hook, rebuilt when the old school was demolished after the shooting.

The $50 million, state-of-the-art facility in Newtown, Connecticut, sits further back on the property from where the original school was located.

“I’m trying to figure out, visually, actually where [my son] was,” Heslin told PEOPLE on Friday.

Moving to a specific spot on the grassy mound, he said, “This is the murder site right here … the two classrooms and the hallway.”

“There’s no words for it,” Heslin said.

Just after 9:30 a.m. on December 14, 2012, authorities say 19-year-old gunman Adam Lanza stormed the school, killing Lewis, 19 other children and six educators, including his teacher, Victoria Soto, and principal, Dawn Hochsprung, who died trying to protect their students.

On that fateful December morning, Lewis bravely urged nine of his classmates huddling in a corner to escape when the shooter’s gun jammed, saving their lives, Heslin said. After Lewis yelled, “Run!” the gunman shot him in the head, his dad said.

“He was a hero,” Heslin said.

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Being back is “sad,” he told PEOPLE Friday. “Brings back memories, good memories and bad memories.”

Heslin brought something with him for the trip: His son’s beloved Cars backpack, still carrying school papers from the day of the massacre.

“I guess I kind of got a feeling that Jesse is here with me,” Heslin said. On the day his son lost his life, Lewis and his class were supposed to make gingerbread houses, Heslin said.

Returning to the site almost four years later was difficult, he said, but added, “I was in the school right after it happened, so being here today is not as hard as that was.”

“But it’s sad,” he said. “I feel numb at this point.”

On Friday, when the school opened to the public, more than 200 people showed up, including drivers from as far away as Georgia and South Carolina.

One resident, who asked to remain anonymous, told PEOPLE that some of the drivers asked, “Is this where the shootings took place? Can we see it?”

Another resident said, “I hope they are here to pay tribute to those who lost their lives and not to gawk.”

Lewis’ mother, Scarlett Lewis, visited the new Sandy Hook at an earlier date but didn’t “get beyond the grassy plot in the middle of the parking lot, our ‘sacred space,’ ” she tells PEOPLE. “I cried for an hour.”

The school will welcome students in September.