It Can Happen Here: Memories from Columbine Part III – Facing Reality
From our house, we could see the lights at Clement Park and Columbine High School. It was particularly noticeable because that was far from normal, especially at that time of year. Since the 20th, lights at the school had burned through the night, as had even baseball field lights at the park. That provided a strange ambiance to the scene, and seemed to emphasize the fact that things were not normal.
One night, a school group in which Dana was involved, met at the house of one of the members. The gathering was supposed to be in celebration of a great year and their last get-together until fall. The kitchen and family room windows provided an unobstructed view of the school, and every light was on. Everyone there seemed to stop at some point in the evening, and focus on the scene. It was impossible to avoid looking out and not recall the moments that led up to those lights, impossible to stop your imagination from taking hold and wondering what investigators were finding as they worked through each night. We had known the layout of the school and the placement of furnishings, but that perspective was now only a memory. I watched the girls, and wondered what they were thinking as they studied the scene. Tears inevitably followed.
As if there wasn’t enough to contend with, journalists and tabloid gossips worked endlessly to pry information from everyone, especially our children. It didn’t take them long to find names and phone numbers of students. Getting phone calls from The New York Times, Washington Post, People Magazine, National Enquirer were run-of-the mill those days. My children turned them all away. I saw photos of my kids’ friends in every magazine and newspaper. They were interviewed on national television. Seeing them, and hearing their stories, added another layer to this massive amount of information we were suddenly trying to deal with. Here were children we had known for years being thrust into the international spotlight, and recounting tales of terror that occurred in our neighborhood school. The surreal had become reality.
I watched a news story unfold as classmates of one girl who was killed quickly began taking flowers and mementos to Clement Park, which abuts the high school. It was as close as they could get to the building where their friend’s body lay. As far as I know, this girl’s friends were the first to leave something, but the site quickly grew to unimaginable proportions. I finally worked up the courage to go to the park on Wednesday afternoon. It was emotionally and visually overwhelming. Seeing it on television is like viewing the Grand Canyon; it is impossible to do it justice unless you are physically on site.
The community memorial service was held the following Sunday. That morning I had gone outside, and looked at my columbine plant that the counselors had given each of the parent volunteers at the end of the 1998 school year. April is much too early for columbines to bloom in our part of Colorado, but mine was in full bloom. Not only was it blooming, there were a total of thirteen blue buds and blossoms greeting me. Since thirteen had been murdered, this was a striking moment. What a wonderful tribute to those we were about to memorialize.
That was a tough day for everyone, as we, along with 70,000 other people, gathered in the parking lot of the AMC theater to grieve and celebrate the lives of thirteen who were taken all too soon. Before the service began, a church choir was running a sound check. They were singing an arrangement of “It is Well with My Soul”. I had heard that there would be sharpshooters on the roof, and in the area, but they were to remain out of sight. Just as the choir began to sing the refrain, “It is well… with my soul”, every sharpshooter on the roof of that theater walked to the edge, rifles positioned across their bodies. I broke down in tears, as the armed officers stood at attention and the choir continued to sing “it is well”. I was struggling to find peace in the midst of this violent storm, and my battered soul longed for comfort. This juxtaposition of peace and armed police is forever embedded in my memory.
June 1st was Dana’s birthday. It was also the day that the school board opened the building to students and parents in order to retrieve personal items left on the 20th. We gathered outside the main entrance next to the administration area where we were met by teachers who would take us inside. This is the same entrance Dana walked through every day. We spoke in muted tones. Shards of that iconic green glass that had been shot out littered the sidewalk and interior hallways. As we approached the doors, even the whispers stopped. The only sound was the shattered glass crunching beneath our feet. We were clearly entering a hallowed area.
(Warning: This paragraph is somewhat graphic.)
Walking into the main hallway, I was taken aback by the heavy smell of gunpowder, smoke, and death. All blood evidence had been removed, but it had clearly left its mark. There was no air conditioner or swamp cooler running, so the air was stagnant and thick with odors that made your mind race in a hundred different directions. We knew this to be the scene of a mass murder, and we knew the victims. No effort had been made to move or clean anything. It was a staggering reminder of all that had happened, and it was obvious that we were standing in the remains of a war zone. There was no doubt that an attack of unfathomable proportions had taken place in this building that our children had come to know so well; and it was nowhere near the normal state any of us had taken for granted.
Backpacks, purses, and schoolwork all sat where they had been abandoned. Strikingly out of place was the colored tape that had been tied to each bag, indicating it had been searched and found non-threatening. Locker doors had been removed. Many had been damaged by gunfire and bombs, and all had been inspected for dangerous contents or evidence. Every door had been torn open by axes, as first responders had to break them down in order to access rooms. Ceiling tiles had either been shot out, or pulled down, and lay on the floor, or hung in pieces. Broken glass was everywhere. Flash marks and bullet holes were still evident.
Most of our stories will remain private, or shared only with close friends or family. I recorded just about everything that was broadcast from that first day, through the last funeral. Our local television stations broadcast the events twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, but we’ve never been able to watch the tapes. They sit, waiting to be transferred to CD, where they will be placed back in a box for someone to view in the future.
Oh yes, we have boxes of magazines, newspapers, videos, CD’s, books, and many gifts from people who wanted to help in some way. Their notes were answered by the students when they returned to school at Chatfield Senior High. That was the extent of their work, after going back to school. Being together, discussing events with fellow students, teachers, and counselors was the main focus. Not a day went by that my daughter didn’t bring home gifts, usually in the form of flowers, but they were a way of people reaching out and showing that they cared.
The night before they were to go back to school, after the last funeral, and with only two and a half weeks of school remaining, parents met to go over the agenda and to familiarize ourselves with the school staff we would be entrusting to care for our children. These kids would again be placed in a situation where anything could happen, and we now had a broader definition of “anything”. Parent volunteers were assigned corridors to monitor, hopefully making students and parents feel safer.
By now, our children were anxious to reunite with their classmates and teachers. I can’t speak for all the parents who were there that day, but my memories of bullet- and shrapnel-riddled legs, arms, and bodies stand out. Seeing one child on crutches would have been normal; but seeing many with crutches or canes, along with wounds and casts, shed new light on what these kids were going through. This was their reality. Life goes on, despite harrowing events and memories.