Drama unfolds; Healing begins
LITTLETON, Colo. (AP) – Working around bodies still lying where they fell more than a day earlier, bomb squad officers checked lockers and backpacks for booby traps Wednesday as investigators tried to piece together one of the deadliest school massacres in U.S. history.
A kid in a white shirt heaved something up onto the high school roof, and it exploded in billowing smoke. Sophomore Don Arnold thought it was just a lunchtime prank, a firecracker maybe.
Then students started falling.
”One boy was running and suddenly his ankle just puffed up in blood,” said the 16-year-old Arnold. ”A girl was running and her head popped open” when a bullet slammed into her skull.
They were the first to be shot in Tuesday’s bloody attack at Columbine High School outside Denver.
Fourteen students and one teacher were killed, most of them in the library. They included the two teen-age gunmen who laughed as they opened fire on their schoolmates.
The gunmen, Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, apparently shot themselves in the head. Officials were trying to determine if others were involved, and they questioned other members of the boys’ dark group of outcasts, the ”Trenchcoat Mafia.”
Arnold’s girlfriend, Lindsay Hamilton, 15, was inside the school reviewing for a biology test when she heard shots and explosions.
”It’s a good day to die!” she said someone yelled at one point. ”We want everyone to die!”
She and 30 other biology students holed up in the science room with their teacher for four hours while unspeakable tragedy unfolded outside.
By the time Hamilton was reunited with Arnold – after a SWAT team escorted her class around puddles of blood – 15 people were dead, including the shooters.
Authorities on Wednesday removed the bodies of two victims who died outside the building. Also, more than 24 hours after the attack, parents finally received official word of their children’s fate. Police hoped to remove the other bodies later in the day.
Investigators left the corpses in place overnight so that they could check for explosives and record the details of the crime scene, which SWAT members described as something from ”Dante’s Inferno.”
Many bodies were sprawled on the floor, slumped in desks or crouched beneath tables, boxes and cubicles where they apparently tried to hide. Police found a handgun under one of the killers, and a semiautomatic rifle and two sawed-off shotguns elsewhere.
”It was a different sort of chaos inside,” SWAT Sgt. George Hinkle said. ”There were fire alarms going off, strobe lights, four inches of water in the cafeteria. We had been told there were bombs in backpacks and there were backpacks everywhere. It was the toughest tactical problem I’ve ever seen.”
Many students were in the cafeteria when the assault on Columbine High began. The first lunch shift started at 11:10 a.m. and was in full swing when food server Karen Nielsen heard someone yell, ”Get down!”
Nielsen said she heard shots coming from outside and rushed to a window. She saw three victims outside.
”I was on automatic,” she said. ”It was just, ‘get to the wounded.”’
One of the boys felled outside the cafeteria door had been shot in the face, another was shot in the back. The third looked dead. Nielsen ran back inside and called 911.
Sheriff’s deputies responded swiftly, but at least two hours ticked by before officers surrounded the building and moved in.
”We had initial people there right away, but we couldn’t get in,” Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone said. ”We were way outgunned.”
When the attackers strode into the cafeteria, ”Everyone was trying to crawl at first, but then someone got up and ran, and everybody was running,” said freshman Chris Donnelly, 15. ”I saw someone bleeding on the floor.”
Nearby, Nielsen was hiding with several other employees in the restroom of the teachers’ lounge. They cringed when the attackers banged on other doors, shouting, ”We know you’re in there,” she said.
Terrible moments passed. The shooting receded. One person ventured out hesitantly – and saw wounded students strewn across the cafeteria. He returned to hiding in the lounge.
Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Davis said 30 explosive devices had been found at Columbine, in the killers’ vehicles and at their homes. Late Tuesday, more than 10 hours after the shootings, a time bomb blew up, but no one was hurt.
”Some of these devices are on timing devices, some are incendiary devices and some are pipe bombs,” Sheriff Stone told ABC’s ”Good Morning America.” ”Some are like hand grenades that have got shrapnel in them wrapped around butane containers.”
Eleven of the victims were male and four were female. District Attorney Dave Thomas said there was no evidence that the killers targeted minorities, as some students claimed. Only one of the 13 victims was black.
”I’ve only seen the photographs, but it appears to me that most of the victims were victims because of where they were at a particular time, not that they were sought out,” Davis said. ”Most of the victims were in the library, and that’s where these two persons ended up. … I don’t know what the motive was other than anger.
According to students, the attackers left the cafeteria and headed for the library, shooting as they walked up the stairs and down the hall.
Many hours later, after law officers had swept the school, checking every abandoned bookbag, backpack and gym satchel for explosives, the sheriff assessed the carnage on the second floor.
”The library was one of the last rooms we entered, and it was the most gruesome,” he said.
Surrounding the bodies of the attackers, both juniors at Columbine, were the bodies of 10 of their victims.
Sixteen people remained hospitalized, 11 in critical or serious condition.
Klebold’s parents have not spoken to reporters, and Harris’ parents issued a statement saying only: ”We want to express our heartfelt sympathy to the families of all the victims and to all the community for this senseless tragedy. Please say prayers for everyone touched by these terrible events.”
Thomas, the district attorney, said that during the rampage, a representative of Klebold’s father called authorities and said the father was willing to help negotiate, but the offer was rejected because officials felt there was little he could do.
Witnesses said Harris and Klebold targeted athletes and minorities, laughing at their victims and using a racial epithet to describe the black victim. ”All jocks stand up!” one of the boys yelled during Tuesday’s attack. ”We’re going to kill every one of you.”
Some students lay still and quiet on the floor, listening as the gunmen finished off the wounded.
Columbine student Brooks Brown, 18, said Harris had once threatened to kill him, but later had resumed their friendship. Brown said he saw Harris carrying a duffel bag as he walked into the school on Tuesday.
”I was walking out for a cigarette and I told him, ‘Hey, man,’ and he said, ‘Brooks, I like you. Now, get out of here. Go home.”’ Brown said. ”And so I didn’t think twice about it.”
While investigators continued their work, memorial services were held across the city Wednesday, and dozens of counselors offered support to grieving students, parents, friends and family.
Several hundred students from around the Denver area gathered at a park near the school Wednesday, many with their parents. Bouquets were scattered around the grounds. Students placed flowers and other mementos on a car driven to school Tuesday by one of the students believed to be killed.
A poster on a wall in the park near the school contained messages of condolence and scorn.
”These flowers and prayers are for the innocent victims and their families, not for the two monsters that committed these selfish and violent acts,” the poster said. ”Who were you two to decide what should happen to these people?”
Red-eyed students, including one girl wearing a T-shirt listing the names of Columbine’s ’99 senior class, streamed into the Light of the World Church for a memorial service and a noon prayer vigil.
”How can you reassure someone who has just seen devastation?” said Rochelle Brunsdon of the Jefferson Center for Mental Health. ”We’re going to talk to people about the experience they’ve had, how they can go on.”
The massacre forced the closing of all schools in the Jefferson County school district, which has 89,000 students and is Colorado’s largest. Rick Kaufman, a district spokesman, said all schools except Columbine would open again Thursday.
Officials were examining ways to get Columbine students into other schools, because it was uncertain the school would open again before the end of the school year.
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