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Tragedy in Colorado

Police Begin Removal of 15 Dead at School

Aftermath: Grisly task commences as Colorado community members grieve, account for friends. Officials struggle to explain students' rampage.

April 22, 1999|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LITTLETON, Colo. — Police Wednesday began removing 15 bodies--all but one of them students--from the smashed-out, shot-up Columbine High School here as officials confessed they were baffled by what drove two outcast teenagers to turn a stockpile of weapons and small explosives on their classmates.

Flags flew at half-staff, the skies clouded gray and the Denver area braced for a late-season snowstorm while all around the campus grief-torn students, parents, teachers and counselors set out on a long road to healing.

Twenty-three people were injured in Tuesday's rampage, 16 remained hospitalized Wednesday evening, and the community here was left stunned that the nation's increasing school violence had suddenly cast its shadow on them.

But because the two gunmen--Eric David Harris and Dylan Bennet Klebold, members of the school's so-called Trench Coat Mafia--apparently killed themselves in their final bursts of gunfire, police said answers to explain the nation's worst shooting in a two-year rash of schoolyard carnage will be slow in coming.

The horror of Tuesday was reverberating throughout the nation. At the state Capitol in Denver, lawmakers withdrew a set of major gun bills, including one that would have made it easier for Colorado gun owners to conceal their weapons.

In Washington, President Clinton echoed the nation's grief, and his administration began sending a phalanx of federal officials here, not only to help investigate the shooting spree but also to assist those likely to suffer for years with the emotional scars of what had been a normal day nearing the end of the school year.

Here in Littleton, hundreds of Columbine students spontaneously converged on a park near the school Wednesday afternoon, creating several makeshift memorials, carrying hundreds of bouquets of carnations and daisies--red, white and yellow--and standing around in knots of 10 and 20, sometimes sobbing uncontrollably.

Then they began checking with one another in a desperate attempt to learn who among their friends had lived, and who had died.

Authorities said Harris, 18, and Klebold, 17, left no clues as to why they left classes Tuesday morning and slipped out to their cars, returning to school heavily armed. Police said even the boys' parents in this upscale community were unaware that their sons were secretly building an arsenal.

But officials did disclose that the shooters slung on their trademark long, black coats and fired two sawed-off, pistol-grip shotguns, a semi-automatic handgun and a 9-millimeter rifle as they grinned and tossed more than 30 pipe bombs and other small explosives inside and around the school grounds.

Sophisticated Bombs From Common Items

Police described the explosives as rather sophisticated devices, made from components commonly sold in hardware stores and groceries. And although police theorized that it must have taken some time to gather, store and construct the bombs, they have not arrested any of the boys' friends or classmates in connection with the murder rampage.

"Right now we have no reason to believe we have any other suspects beyond the two who are dead," said Deputy Steve Davis, a Jefferson County sheriff's spokesman.

"There were no suicide notes or anything. And I really don't know if the parents were aware of their kids' involvement."

But his boss, Sheriff John Stone, in an observation revealing some dissension among law enforcement officials, said after seeing the bodies strewn about the school: "I have concerns whether just two people could carry all that out in there.

"This is not something they did overnight," the sheriff added. "There was a lot of planning that went into this. We also found more explosives and another sawed-off shotgun at one of the suspect's house. I'd say it took considerable time to get all this."

In another apparent contradiction, Jefferson County Dist. Atty. Dave Thomas said that during the shooting, Klebold's father called police and offered to help negotiate with his son to end the standoff. But if the parents did not know that their sons were stockpiling weapons, why would Klebold's father suppose that his son was a suspect rather than one of the hundreds of terrified students inside the school?

Police also revealed that a deputy assigned to patrol the school heard the first shots and fired back at the two boys; he missed. The deputy then retreated and called for back-up help.

Police said the first SWAT team to arrive also engaged in gunfire with the two youths. They too missed, and the standoff wore on for another 90 minutes.

During that time, as frantic parents rushed to the school, the 2,000-member student population and staff ran for exits, closets and locked doors as shots could be heard and bombs sounded.

Police Defend Course of Restraint

But police defended their decision not to go busting into the school right away, mindful that they did not immediately know who were the students and who were firing the guns.

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