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Tragedy in Colorado | SATURDAY JOURNAL : The two of
them are bound together by a single face, which captures
for both the devastation at Columbine High. That face
is Rachel's.

A Shared Grief

Shootings: For a teen and a cop, flashbacks of Rachel haunt them.

April 24, 1999|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LITTLETON, Colo. — Capt. Vince DiManna has a been-there face. He's 26 years a Denver police officer, a veteran of the SWAT team. His is the hard, angular, seen-it-all face of a cop.

This week, though, it's been letting him down. He'll stop talking for a second and his eyes will lose focus. The taut tension of the cop face will quiver.

He's thinking about Rachel.

Nick Baumgart has a show-me face. He's just 17, a high school senior, with adolescent acne and eyes full of promise. He likes acting and cooking and his is an eager face, a what-will-the-world- unfurl-for-me-today face.

This week, though, pain haunts it. He tugs at his lower lip a lot and he does a lot of hard swallowing. His eyes are dry but red. He hurts.

He, too, is thinking of Rachel.

Capt. DiManna and Nick Baumgart--just two of the thousands forever changed by the massacre at Columbine High. They don't know one another. And as they grope toward healing, they're drawing very different lessons from the tragedy, the one dwelling on questions and anger, the other finding hope and promise in the horror. Yet the two of them--the tough, tanned cop and the pale, polite kid--are bound together. Bound by a single face, which captures for both the devastation at Columbine High.

That face is Rachel's.

Rachel Scott--an actress, a musician, a poet, a kid--was 17 when she was shot dead Tuesday.

Nick had taken her to the prom the Saturday before.

Capt. DiManna discovered her body.

Both Nick and DiManna lived through enough terror for a lifetime Tuesday. Nick, in physics when the shooting erupted, raced from corridor to corridor with his classmates and teacher in a wild dash for safety. Each time they turned a corner, they would see flashes, hear gunfire, pull up, whirl around, try another route. DiManna arrived within minutes of the first 911 call--and a chunk of shrapnel gouged into his cheek when the killers tossed a bomb his way. He spent hours rescuing hostages and hunting the gunmen, all the while praying about one student in particular, a student he sought but could not find: his youngest son, Jeff, a Columbine senior.

Those ordeals will no doubt surface again and again in the weeks to come as the teen and the cop come to grips with what happened. But the flashbacks racking them now--the first to erode the numbness that got them through the first few days--are not of shotguns, trench coats or danger. They're of Rachel.

Nick sees her as she was last Saturday night, the only girl at the prom in a sleek black dress. (Everyone else wore poofy pastels.) He tugs at that lower lip. He sees her in the limo, talking the crazy talk that made her so fun. She had a good time pondering, he remembers now, if elephants have toes. Nick swallows, tugs the lip, smiles so bravely you want to drop everything and hug him. He sees Rachel in the restaurant, the only one in his group who dared sample the pate. He looks at a photo of her, so pretty, so bright, sees her laughing as she struggled to pin on his boutonniere.

DiManna never knew that Rachel. By the time he saw her, she was dead. That's the way he sees her now, when his eyes lose focus and he stares into nothing. So frail. So light. A little girl, that's what she was. A little girl, dead, on the schoolyard lawn.

Taking Their Grief in Different Directions

From those contrasting images of Rachel, the commander and the student have taken their grief in opposite directions.

DiManna sees Rachel dead, and he's angry. "We can't win back the innocence those students lost."

Nick sees Rachel alive, and he's hopeful. "She's certainly not gone. She's going to be a part of us."

Nick and his friends have spent hours remembering Rachel. Joking about how she used to imitate the spitting dinosaur from "Jurassic Park". Laughing at how she would take any dare you could throw at her. They've decided to finish the play she was writing and produce it next year at Columbine. They hope, too, to publish her notebook of poems. As a tribute to Rachel, Nick's even considering a career in acting. He's always wanted to be a chef, but he met Rachel through the drama club, and somehow sticking with acting just feels like a good way to honor her.

"In a lot of ways, she's going to keep living," Nick promises, sure in this case it's not a cliche.

Surrounded by friends from his church youth group, Nick broke down and sobbed Tuesday night when a classmate told him she had seen Rachel dead in the schoolyard. Since then, though, he has tried so hard to convert his hurt into hope. Unlike many of his friends, he even wants to go back to school--not back to Columbine, but back somewhere--to finish out the last 19 days of his senior year. He thinks that will give him closure.

His mom, Bonnie, worries he's being too much of a trouper. "There's a lot buried in there," she says.

If so, Nick won't let it out.

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