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Tragedy in Colorado

Tests of Nerves as Terror Unfolded

Shootings: Students, parents waited in horror inside and outside Columbine.

April 23, 1999|J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LITTLETON, Colo. — It was supposed to be another day of delicious waiting.

Students at Columbine High School could feel the kiss of spring on their skin, the whisper of summer in their ears. Trees were budding, prom had just passed, and the world beyond the drab beige walls of school was beckoning.

Just 19 days to go, they told each other, leafing through magazines in the library, going through their last dull algebra lessons, pasting together their final history projects.

Then came 11:20 a.m. Shuddering explosions could be heard in the parking lot and on the school roof, followed by a burst of--could that be gunfire?

"Get down!" a teacher yelled, standing atop a cafeteria table, and suddenly the clock stopped.

What was to be a languid time of sweet anticipation became an agonizing limbo, a span of nearly four hours when students cowered inside their blood-spattered school--in bathrooms and classrooms, closets and air ducts--while their parents collected at a nearby staging area to hope for good news, to brace for bad. The worst high school shooting in U.S. history became the longest afternoon in Colorado history, as 900 teens and their parents kept separate but parallel vigils, not knowing who would live or die.

Unable to communicate, they tried to get word to each other--"I love you," "Stay safe," "I'm fine"--through cell phones and pagers, prayers and ESP.

Little is known about exactly what happened, and exactly when, in those first panic-stricken seconds. The precise chronology may never be fully known, since both gunmen are dead from self-inflicted wounds to the head and the survivors' memories already are blurring and running together, some beginning to think they saw things they actually heard about on TV.

What will always be grimly certain is that two masked boys in black cowboy dusters--17-year-old Dylan Bennet Klebold and 18-year-old Eric Davis Harris, who'd worked before in a tight little criminal tandem, breaking into a van last year--set off homemade bombs outside the school about 11:20 a.m., then gunned down two students and left them to die in the dry brown grass.

They then strolled calmly through the main student entrance, guns blazing, muttering the word "revenge." They were seniors out to settle scores, they said, getting even with those who'd spurned them for years.

"We've waited our whole lives for this!" they shouted.

Much has been made of the fact that the shooting spree coincided with the 110th anniversary of Hitler's birth, because both teen gunmen were entranced by swastikas and Nazis. But the assault also came three days after the prom, when a pair of such isolated outcasts would have felt more outcast than ever.

At 11:25 a.m., a cafeteria worker dialed 911 to say something awful was happening at Columbine. Meanwhile, a sheriff's deputy who stood guard every day at the front door already knew. He sprinted toward the explosions and came face to face with one of the gunmen. Briefly, they exchanged fire, each missing the other, before the deputy retreated and waited for reinforcements.

Minutes later, at 11:30, the first police officers on the scene did the same. They fired a few shots at the teens, then fell back, followed by SWAT teams, who also waited.

In time, many would wonder about the wait. Why did an hour pass between the first gunfire and the SWAT team's descent on the school? Why did five hours pass between the first explosions and the SWAT team's "all clear."

"My concern is that my dad was left there, was still alive and was not helped," says Angie Sanders, daughter of teacher William "Dave" Sanders, who suffered a chest wound minutes after the assault began and didn't die until minutes after it all ended.

"To watch more than 200 heavily armed SWAT team and other police officers in body armor, standing around discussing strategy, while hundreds of children were trapped inside, was painful," wrote Cecil Rigsby, a Denver man, his letter printed with others like it in a local newspaper. "Where were the heroes? How many people bled to death while the police waited to act?"

So far, the police haven't defended their response in detail. A sheriff's spokesman will say only that extreme caution was called for, with so many bombs involved and with suspects looking so much like victims.

Science Closet Offered Refuge

Jessica Arzola, a soft-voiced 15-year-old sophomore with jet black hair and a light dusting of freckles, was just biting into a slice of pizza when her high school turned into hell.

She wasn't among those who thought the seniors were staging a prank or fireworks were going off. She could tell by the vast wave of human panic that something unspeakable was coming her way.

"I heard this roar," she says, "kids yelling and running, then pop-pop-pop, pop-pop-pop, and I ran into the first door I saw."

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