It Can Happen Here: Memories from Columbine Part II – Sensory Overload

It Can Happen Here: Memories from Columbine Part I - The Nightmare Begins

Columbine 3_1 - Copy

I’m jolted awake by the sound of the mudroom door slamming. My daughter Dana is going to school. I should have been up already, but fell back asleep after turning off my alarm. That day, of all days, she didn’t wake me to say goodbye, but I know she will be going to school like she always did every weekday morning. Her sister had graduated from Columbine High School the year before, and I had worked as a parent volunteer in the post grad counseling office, so I know the building like the back of my hand, and that gives me some degree of satisfaction that I know where my child will be all day.

I can visualize her parking at Clement Park, or as the kids call it, “BFE”, and walking south to the school’s main entrance. Kids who don’t have a student parking space use this parking lot, and it isn’t all that close to the school. Dana won’t be getting a new car until her senior year, so she has to make the long walk five days a week.

I run a private piano studio out of my house, and have a part-time job working for a friend who has a home office in Castle Rock. Not being in any hurry, I hit the road around 10:00. Since my boss has an IT business, there are quite a few computers and pieces of office equipment running all day, and that makes hearing a phone conversation difficult at times. Listening to the radio is something I hadn’t even attempted. That particular day, though, I decide I am going to defy the odds, and turn on the radio in the basement office.

I can’t recall the exact time, but I'm caught up in a consumer complaint when Tom Martino breaks in and informs his audience that there has been a shooting at Columbine High School. He is going to break, and get information.

A shooting! Such a thing had never crossed my mind. Ours is a laid-back community, and I can’t come up with any reason for a shooting to have occurred at the school. I don’t have a cell phone, in fact hardly anyone I know has one, so I grab the office phone and page my boss with the office number, followed by 911. He’s with a client in downtown Denver, but calls back quickly. “What’s going on?” I tell him what I had heard, and that I’m going upstairs to find a TV, and see if I can get a visual on what is happening.

Being in a strange home, it takes me a while to find a TV I can work, and the first thing I hear is Bertha Lynn using words that send me into shock: gunmen, bombs, smoke pouring out of the building, shooters killing the kids, gunfire, bodies. The words become a cacophony of sound. White noise. My brain synapses begin firing rapidly, and alerting all kinds of responses in my mind and body. Adrenaline is surging through every pore. I bolt back to the office, where I send my boss another page, only I add three 911’s.

One hand holds my jacket and purse, and the other is on the phone. As soon as it rings, I frantically blurt out, “There are gunmen in the building! They have bombs, and are killing the kids. I’ve got to go now!” Before I could hang up, he asks, “Where do you want me to meet you?” I don’t. I don’t want an outsider interfering in a personal matter, and I just want to run like hell to find my daughter. My boss is a former police officer and I reluctantly decided his knowledge might come in handy. He suggests we meet at the public library. I know that he isn’t familiar with the area, and I also know that since the library is on county park property that is adjacent to the high school, there is a good chance it will be the staging area, but I agree, then run out of the house. I jump in my car, turn on the emergency flashers, and peel out.

I get to I25 in record time, and have no idea that every law enforcement officer of any kind is now on their way to Columbine, so I should have no worries about getting a ticket. I don’t plan to let anything get in my way, though, and my heavy foot is holding down the gas pedal. Lights flashing, horn honking, I stay in the left lane, making my way through hundreds of drivers who politely pulled over, while giving me a thumb’s up, or mouthing, I’m praying for you, all of which compound my emotions. I’m on the verge of breaking down, but am determined to keep my head on straight while navigating the highway and mentally struggling to make sense of the nightmare that is spinning from the airwaves on KOA.

At the time, I have no idea my body has gone into shock. The news adds to my spinning thoughts, and I’m running on pure adrenaline. I keep imagining my daughter’s plight. Is she in a closet? A classroom? Has she been shot? Is she trying to hide in the ceiling? Is she being held hostage? Did she make it out? There is no way to adequately describe the wild thoughts that are coursing through my head.

On a good day, the drive from Castle Rock takes thirty-five minutes. I know I’m making exceptional time because, at one point, I look at my speedometer and note I’m going 108mph. I slow down, but only to about 85. It’s funny how, even in the midst of chaos, your mind reasons that you had better ease off the gas pedal, rather than risk an accident. I know by then in my heart of hearts that every law enforcement vehicle in the vicinity was either at, or headed to, the school.

As I approach the Platte Canyon exit, which would take me close to Columbine, my pager goes off. Actually, it is Dana’s pager, but I’m glad I have it, in case she wants to message me. I plead for it to say 007. That’s her special code. It would mean she is all right. Instead, it is her sister Joanna calling from her dorm room at CU Boulder. The pager shows her number, plus 911.

My mother’s heart can’t take any more. I cry out that I’ll call her as soon as I can. I exit C470, turn onto Wadsworth, and head north. After crossing Chatfield, traffic slows to a crawl, and I think, “Oh good grief, don’t tell me traffic is already backed up!” As I get further up the road, I see four police cars, a fire truck, and a bomb squad unit to my right. That’s when I get my first physical connection to what is happening. I had heard on the radio that a pipe bomb in a backpack had gone off in this area, but until I see the first responders, I have no sense of it being real.

The pager is going off again; Joanna messaging 911, 911, 911, 911. Again, I cry out that I can’t call right now, but I’m moving as fast as I can. I drive past the bomb scene, and traffic smooths out until I reach the intersection of Wadsworth and Bowles. I wait for four ambulances to move through before I can make my turn. My heart and brain are overwhelmed at the sight. As I look east on Bowles, there are emergency vehicles parked on either side of the road as far as the eye can see, and all around the public library, and surrounding park area.

On top of the hill in Clement Park sits an armored personnel carrier. To me, it might as well be a tank, because I equate it with war. There is police crime scene tape everywhere. Police officers are standing guard in the street. I need to get to the library, but have to maneuver through parents, who are running across the street toward the library. I feel trapped, and again regret telling my boss I would wait for him.

People have gathered on street corners, just watching, as we who have children, or other loved ones, are trying desperately to find parking places, and seek information. It seems strange to look at the area now, and see a couple of shopping centers and restaurants that weren’t there in 1999. I pull into a new strip mall that only has one or two occupied businesses, and opt for a Chinese restaurant, where I am greeted by a guy whose first language is Chinese. He has no idea what is going on, but hands me a cell phone when I ask to use a phone. I get nothing, except busy signals. With thousands of people trying to call both in and out of the area, it is unlikely any call will go through.

I give him back the phone, but as I turn to leave, he offers me a glass of water because he says I look upset. I’m perplexed that he would use such a calm term, considering the magnitude of what is unfolding. That’s when it occurs to me that no one in the restaurant knows about the breaking news across the street. I blurt out what is going on, then run out the door, where I find a woman using her cell phone, and she graciously allows me to use it. By then, I’m shaking so badly I can barely hold the phone, let alone press any buttons. She dials my daughter’s CU phone number, which, surprisingly, rings.

Joanna tells me her dad is going to the library and that I should go to go to Leawood Elementary. But I have to wait for my boss. I decide the most expeditious way for us to connect is for me to wait on the corner, as I know he will have to cross from there. I position myself next to two grimy men, and notice one has a dirty phone strapped to his hip. Feeling desperate, I ask to use it. This time, my hands are not even steady enough to hold the phone. It doesn’t matter; no call is going through. As I wait, the men tell me they had been on Wadsworth when the pipe bomb went off on the greenbelt sidewalk that runs a few yards east of the street. More evidence that this is real.

I hear my boss’s voice, and take off toward the parking lot where he has left his truck. That’s when I am at long last able to make tracks to Leawood Elementary, but it isn’t like we can drive straight to the school. Columbine is located on Pierce Street, south of Bowles, so we have to find an alternate route, because Bowles is blocked off. Normally, I would have driven past the high school, and wound my way through the neighborhood to the elementary school. Once in the Leawood area, we have to navigate streets that are lined with vehicles of (mostly) parents of Columbine kids. I watch as people I know are making their way back to their cars, arms around their children. Most are distraught. I talk to a couple of friends, but they and their children are in shock, and trying to make sense of something that would never make sense.

It takes some time, but we at last manage to find a parking spot. As I begin walking toward the main entrance to the school, I get my first taste of the media, and experience the doggedness of journalists thrusting microphones in faces, and lenses zooming in on anxious and emotionally distraught victims. I witness any number of kids and parents being photographed, as they sit or stand, trying to come to grips with the drama as it unfolds. One young man I know is sitting alone on a step; his six-foot-plus frame bent over, and he has dissolved into inconsolable tears of the deepest agony. Photos of him would wind up in magazines and newspapers, and would be broadcast around the world on television. As crowded as the ground is (portable toilets have already been set up for the large number of media personnel who have converged on the school), so is the sky. Try talking, or even thinking, with eight helicopters and an airplane circling above. No conversation is private. Members of the media, seeking a story, are everywhere I turn. I feel accosted.

Someone cries out, MOM! I hear that a lot this afternoon. (You should know that three hours have now passed between the time I heard about the shootings, and the time I heard my daughter’s voice.) Yes, it was her! She and three friends are standing alongside a split rail fence in front of the school, and it is a beautiful sight. As we run toward each other, the media follow.

When I ask what happened, they begin to tell their stories. The scene in the commons as they ate lunch, kids screaming, smoke from bombs, a teacher shot, running at the sound of gunfire, bloodied classmates. And, as crazy as it sounds, these phrases and terms that I never would have imagined I would hear in real life, have now become commonplace words that are flowing throughout our conversation.

Because of the media and helicopter noise, we duck inside the school. There is something eerie about that time. There are no reporters, and the halls are filled with mostly Columbine families and school staff, all speaking in low tones. I talk to various friends, and see even more people I had known for years, but if they are deep in conversation with someone, I hesitate to interrupt, not wanting to insinuate myself into someone's pain and suffering.

I had been praying steadily since it all started, so when a youth pastor (one of many clergy members on site) asks if I want to pray, I tell him I had been praying constantly, and was still praying as I was talking to him.

I did a lot of praying that day. I talked to God all the way to Leawood, and the entire time I was there, then when I got home. My daughter was alive and safe, and I was grateful. I also prayed for the impossible. No one knew how bad the scene was, and we had no idea at the time that the killers had not only ended the lives of a dozen students and a teacher, but also their own.

I run back to my boss’s truck, where he has a mounted cell phone, and call my oldest daughter to let her know I have found her sister after three frantic hours of hell. I also tell her she needs to come home. I call my mother in South Texas. My breaking voice manages to tell her, The school you’re watching on TV is Dana’s school. Her tearful voice responds, I know. Then my eyes fill with tears. I know this is world news. Hearing her confirmation that this is a big story, sets me back a little. I call my brother, and then begin looking for friends of my daughter. These kids grew up together. I find that some are okay, but can’t reach others at that time. I literally dial one hundred times before I’m able to get through to a particular friend, so I give up calling anyone else.

The kids who have not yet located their parents are asked to go to the stage in the auditorium. That’s where we sit, waiting for parents and grandparents to arrive, all the while trying to put the pieces together. One grandmother arrives, only to find that her granddaughter has been taken to a hospital. Another of our group is waiting for her policeman father, or mother, who is a nurse, to pick her up. I can’t leave anyone alone, so we wait together, and try to grasp the extent of the situation.

They had seen Dave Sanders get shot, and fall to the floor, while giving everything he had to direct students to safety. Their lunch table was at the base of the stairs. Later, we would find out that the shooters had placed their largest bomb in a duffel bag next to them. The girls had no idea.

My daughter was in math class at the time. She thought seniors were running through the halls, banging on lockers and screaming. I guess that’s something you would think when you haven’t a clue as to what exploding bombs and gunfire sound like. Even if you do, that’s probably not the first thing that would come to mind when you’re in such a situation - at least not in a suburban Colorado high school in 1999.

Upon exiting the classroom and running across the street to a park, news began to filter down. One girl cried out, “Oh, my God. I just saw my best friend get shot!” Some kids were spattered with blood. Some had no shoes; that happens when you’re running for your life. At the sound of an explosion or gunfire, those kids took off running, and they ran until coming to a house where the owner was holding open the door for anyone who wanted to come in. He told me later he had 160 kids in his house.

My daughter got a ride in a friend’s pickup truck. Her friend made many trips back and forth between that house and Leawood, hauling anyone who wanted a ride.

While waiting for other parents, I watch the happenings inside the elementary school. I am there when uninjured kids from the library are brought in. The mood in the room changes. I watch a family with arms linked in a circle, heads bowed in fervent prayer; all are crying. The father throws back his head, turns his face toward heaven, and cries out to God in a gut-wrenching plea for his son. I am somewhat embarrassed to be next to them, as though I am witnessing something too personal, too raw. The image is seared into my mind. He has just been told his son was killed in the library, yet they never give up hope until it becomes obvious that the report was true.

Busloads of kids pull up to the school, and parents run to see if their child is among those onboard. Shouts of Mom! Dad! can be heard everywhere. As those kids are reunited with their parents, the remaining parents inquire of their own children's situations, and then step aside, anxiously awaiting the next bus. Each bus brings fewer students and teachers. The last one I see only has a handful of people. I don’t recall specific faces, but I know some parents will never see their child get off a bus.

Kids are asked to sign sheets at both Leawood and Columbine libraries, so there will be a record of their safety. Lists are faxed between locations, and printed out, so that parents can locate their child. Keep in mind that most people probably don’t have a cell phone at this time. All of that will change in a matter of days. My family would never be without one after that.

Around 4:30, things have really slowed down, although there are quite a number of people left at the school. We head home. As we wind our way through the neighborhood, and get fairly close to Columbine, we encounter a small group of kids and a teacher who are in line to board a bus. It seems lonely and almost like a postscript. Daylight is waning, and the air is losing the brighter colors of this unusually warm spring day, as the sun begins its descent behind the mountains. I know they will be going to the elementary school where the hopes of many waiting parents will be dashed; and this is likely one of the last buses, if not the last bus, to transport any remaining children from the high school.

I have never experienced shock of this kind, but I know there is nothing I could have done to prevent it. At times, I had no control over my arms and legs; adrenaline and fear caused them to shake uncontrollably. Even my voice wasn’t the same. If anything, I know that I’m not going to break down yet. I have to be strong for everyone else, especially my youngest daughter. I want to be the stalwart rock that never crumbles in the face of what is turning out to be the longest, saddest, angriest, loneliest, most grievous time in our lives. And the entire world is watching.