REWIND: Read TIME’s Cover-Story Article About The Columbine Shooting From 15 Years Ago
CORRECTION: The TIME article didn’t correct this, but the “I Believe In God” exchange that is discussed in this article has been disproven. The girl that was originally attributed with the quote was shot immediately by Dylan Klebold. The quote was actually said by another student who survived the shooting. Read more about the disproving here and here. A snippet of one of the links occurs below.
If you think it’s too much of a stretch to link Matthew Shepard and Cassie Bernall, I’ll try to explain it to you. Trust me – as someone who has bridged the gap from red to blue America, I haven’t forgotten my roots. No doubt you’re aware of the culture war we have been perpetually waging for many decades. Well, to evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, Matthew Shepard was a direct assault on their territory: martyrs are supposed to be martyrs for Christ, not for one of the most heinous sins in the Bible. The reality of Matthew Shepard drove many right-wing evangelicals to apoplexy. So naturally, six months later, when presented with the opportunity to have an attractive young martyr of their own, the evangelical community jumped on it. In Cassie Bernall, the religious right had an answer to Matthew Shepard and they weren’t about to let go of her.
Not even when presented with evidence that refuted the story.
What really happened? Cassie was under a table in the library with Emily Wyant. The shooter looked under the table at Cassie, said “peek-a-boo” and shot her. She died instantly. Emily was looking at her the whole time and although Emily says Cassie was praying quietly as it happened, no one asked her if she believed in God. On the other side of the room, however, Valeen Schnurr was shot with a shotgun and was also praying “Oh God.” Klebold asked her if she believed in God and she said that she did. He asked her why and Valeen said it was because she had been brought up to believe in God. Klebold reloaded but walked away. Valeen survived her wounds.
But it was too late. The Cassie Bernall myth had already begun. Out in the parking lot, a boy who had escaped from the library, who shared Cassie’s faith, had already told reporters it was Cassie who had answered affirmatively about her belief in God. In the evangelical community of Littleton, Colorado, it was the small ray of light on this bleak dark day. The myth of Cassie Bernall mushroomed overnight. As Dave Cullen writes about debunking the Columbine myths:
But cooperative sources quickly clammed up when questioned about the most celebrated Columbine story of all, immortalized this month in Misty Bernall’s bestseller, “She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall.” “This is just too sensitive,” a key source said, insisting on anonymity even for that statement. According to Misty Bernall’s book, which has energized Christian youth movements around the world, the killers put a gun to her daughter Cassie’s head and asked if she believed in God. When she said yes, they blew her away.
But while no one would go on the record, key investigators made it clear that an alternate scenario is far more likely: The killers asked another girl, Valeen Schnurr, a similar question, then shot her, and she lived to tell about it. Schnurr’s story was then apparently misattributed to Cassie.
Why pick apart the memory of an innocent girl who was tragically murdered? It’s unpleasant and makes me queasy but there’s a larger lesson here that is vital that we, as an ongoing society, must learn: when we allow the myth to become literal truth, we present ourselves and future generations with a grave danger. Not that the Cassie Bernall myth poses that level of threat, but because it is so recent and there is so much evidence, her legacy is that we have an opportunity to look at the myth-to-fact phenomenon up close.
As the reality of Columbine recedes further in time, I wonder which “truth” will have more staying power. I’ll write more about it tomorrow.
NOTE: What follows is one of the most detailed descriptions of what occurred on April 20, 1999 as it happened. It is extremely graphic. An event that should have changed the minds of America on guns ended up being only one of many massacres involving guns over the last 15 years.
TRIGGER WARNING FOR GRAPHIC CONTENT, INCLUDING DETAILED GRAPHIC DESCRIPTIONS OF A SCHOOL SHOOTING, VIOLENCE, DEATH, GORE, AND ADULT CONTENT
High school is a haunted house in April, when seniors act up because the end is near. Even those who hate school sometimes cling to the devil they know. And for the kids who love it, the goodbyes are hard to think about. Two weeks ago, Sara Martin was chosen to be a graduation speaker for Columbine High, and she was struggling. She wanted to write about all the people she loved, in the choir and the Bible club and even the ones who turn left out of the right-hand lane in the parking lot.“I have loved oysters at 7 in the morning in the teachers’ lounge with Mme. Lutz and the halls that smelled like rotting Easter eggs,” she wrote. “I have loved fire drills and Tai Chi on the lawn with Mr. Kritzer’s philosophy class. I have loved you and our moments of folly together…We’re all looking for passion, for something, anything, in our lives.” And she wondered how to capture the spirit, “the humanity and integrity that walk the halls of our very own Columbine.”
She was in the choir room last Tuesday when something very different was walking the halls. By the end of that gruesome day, by the time 15 people had died, her friends among them, she had her yearbook of humanity and integrity signed in blood. As Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris prowled the school with their guns and bombs, this is what the children did: a boy draped himself over his sister and her friend, so that he would be the one shot. A boy with 10 bullet wounds in his leg picked up an explosive that landed by him and hurled it away from the other wounded kids. Others didn’t want to leave their dying teacher when the SWAT team finally came: Can’t we carry him out on a folded-up table? A girl was asked by the gunman if she believed in God, knowing full well the safe answer. “There is a God,” she said quietly, “and you need to follow along God’s path.” The shooter looked down at her. “There is no God,” he said, and he shot her in the head.
Before we inventory the evil we cannot fathom, consider the reflexes at work among these happy, lucky kids, born to a generation that is thought to know nothing about sacrifice. They had no way of knowing what would be asked of them, what they were capable of. Among the kids who died and the ones who were prepared to die were the students who stayed behind to open a door, or save a friend, or build an escape route or barricade a closet or guide the descending SWAT teams into the darkness.
The story of the slaughter at Columbine High School opened a sad national conversation about what turned two boys’ souls into poison. It promises to be a long, hard talk, in public and in private, about why smart, privileged kids rot inside. Do we blame the parents, blame the savage music they listened to, blame the ease of stockpiling an arsenal, blame the chemistry of cruelty and cliques that has always been a part of high school life but has never been so deadly? Among the many things that did not survive the week was the hymn all parents unconsciously sing as they send their children out in the morning, past the headlines, to their schools: It can’t happen here, Lord, no, it could never happen here.
Sure it can. It can even happen in Littleton, a town of 35,000 near the dusty-tan foothills of the Rockies, just southwest of Denver. It was once a small prairie town of gold rushers and traders, where the biggest scare was getting hit by a prairie dog. Now it’s a stretched finger of the big city, with aspiring families who don’t lock their doors, enclaves with names like Coventry and Raccoon Creek and Bel Flower, scrubland turned into golf courses, houses than run anywhere from $75,000 to $5 million or so. There’s an arch over a hallway in the high school engraved with a motto: “The finest kids in America pass through these halls.”
The day began with an omen. On the classroom video monitors, the “phrase of the day” was not exactly Ralph Waldo Emerson. Instead, noticed a student, it was something to the effect, “You don’t want to be here.” Below that was the date, not spelled out April 20, as was the custom, but written 4/20 in bold type, a pulsing message easily decoded. “It’s weed-smoking day,” one student said, referring to the shorthand for going out and getting stoned: marijuana is supposed to contain 420 different chemicals: the Los Angeles police department’s code for a drug bust is 420.
And it was also, as we now know too well, Adolf Hitler’s birthday. In the handwritten diary of one of the suspects, the anniversary, say the police, was clearly marked as a time to “rock and roll.” Some members of Harris’ and Klebold’s clique, tagged in derision a few years before as the Trench Coat Mafia, had embraced enough Nazi mythology to spook their classmates. They reportedly wore swastikas on black shirts, spoke German in the halls, re-enacted World War II battles, played the most vicious video games, talked about whom they hated, whom they would like to kill. Harris and Klebold liked to bowl: when Harris made a good shot, he would throw his arm up, “Heil Hitler!”
But they were not really dangerous, right? Every school has its rebels, its Goths in black nail polish and lipstick, its stoners and deadbeats, sometimes, as in this case, the very brightest techie kids who found solidarity in exclusion. “We hung out. We listened to music,” says Alejandra Marsh, 16. “We went over to someone’s house and watched cartoons. We loved Pinky and the Brain and Animaniacs.” Fellow students described them as discarded, unwanted “stereotype geeks,” who, like the jocks and preppies, had their own table in the cafeteria, their group picture in the yearbook with the caption, “‘Who says we’re different? Insanity’s healthy. Stay alive, stay different, stay crazy.”
“They do it for the attention,” says Greg Montgomery, 19. “It’s kind of like a rivalry with us,” pipes in hockey player Chip Dunleavy, 17. “They hate us because we’re like the social elite of the school.”
That rivalry had been smoldering for months. Some students say even the teachers picked on the Trench Coats, blaming them for things they hadn’t done and letting the jocks get away with anything because they were the crown princes. One athlete in particular liked to taunt them. “Dirtbag,” he’d say, or maybe, “Nice dress.” Others called them “faggots,” inbreeds, harassing them to the point of throwing rocks and bottles at them from moving cars. “You have to understand that there were as many lies, rumors and intrigue as in Washington this past year,” says Marsh. “It’s almost the definition of a teenager to be cruel to those who are not like you. They don’t like to admit it,” she says, but “the ones who are the worst at spreading rumors and lies would be the jocks and the cheerleaders. There was one rumor we went around killing small animals. Another rumor that we had orgies.”
Some of the Trench Coats tried to ignore the hazing, but some snarled back, and one reportedly flashed a shotgun at his abusers in the park. They made a video for class, a tale of kids in trench coats hunting down their enemies with shotguns. The graffiti in the boys’ bathroom warned: COLUMBINE WILL EXPLODE ONE DAY. KILL ALL ATHLETES. ALL JOCKS MUST DIE.
It was all out in the open, all the needles and threats, but in a school of nearly 2,000 busy, ambitious kids, that quiet hissing sound was just background noise, drowned out by the gossip about who went to the prom with whom on Saturday night; the humming of the seniors’ theme song, The Way You Look Tonight; and finally the normal sounds of a Tuesday morning, when the biology class was worrying about its test on the digestive system, the choir was rehearsing for its afternoon concert and it was warm enough outside to wear shorts, at last.
It was Free Cookie Day in the cafeteria, and there were hundreds of students draped around the tables and waiting in lines at the 11:30 lunch hour when the sounds of the firing erupted outside. Students saw two boys in trench coats and masks firing at kids; one tossed something up onto the roof of the school, and it exploded in a flash. Some kids thought it was the long-awaited senior prank; they had been expecting balloons filled with shaving cream. Surely those are firecrackers, they thought. Surely those guns are fake. Is the blood fake? Can a fake bomb make walls shake? Then they were screaming and running. One boy could feel the rush of a bullet past his head.
“Get down!” the janitor yelled. “Get under a table!” They dove for cover, then began crawling–under furniture, over backpacks, slithering toward the stairs. Then they ran as the shots came again. “We heard boom after boom,” says sophomore Jody Clouse. “The floor was shaking from the explosions.” Bullets clanged as they bounced off metal lockers. Some tried to run upstairs, to the safety of the library. But there was smoke everywhere, the fire alarms had gone off, and the sprinkler system was turning the school into a blinding, misty jungle. So they retreated back downstairs, away from the library, which, by the time the mayhem ended, had turned into a tomb.
Cafeteria worker Karen Nielsen had rushed to help the bleeding students when she spotted the shooters. As she heard the shots blowing through the room, she shoved the kids into a bathroom. She pulled a phone along with her to call the police. But then she worried, “They’ll see the cord. And then we’ll be trapped.”
Sheriff’s deputy Neil Gardner, posted at the school for security, heard the shots and ran toward the cafeteria. When he spotted one gunman, he exchanged fire, then ducked for cover and called for backup. By this time the 911 calls were already coming in, and the SWAT cars were on the scene within 20 minutes. But the bombs were still going off, and the officers had no idea how many shooters there were–or which ones were killers and which were targets. “They didn’t want to go in there with guns blazing,” says Cathy Scott, mother of two students who escaped, “and kill the wrong kids.” And so the police hunkered down, as the bombs kept exploding all around.
Upstairs in the science wing, science teacher Dick Will thought, “There go those chemistry people blowing things up again.” But when the fire alarm rang, Will knew it was more than students at work. A group of his kids went down the hall to investigate and came back yelling and screaming, “They’re shooting!” He herded his charges back to the corner of the room, shut off the lights and started turning over chairs and desks and piling them up against the doors.
Other teachers had the same instincts. Business teacher Dave Sanders was in the faculty lounge when he heard the trouble, raced toward the cafeteria and went to war. “He screamed for us to get down and shut up,” says freshman Kathy Carlston. “We crawled on the floor and made it to the stairs.” When the firing began again, they got up and started to run. Sanders, on the ground, propped himself on his elbows, directing kids to safety as the killers moved in. Too terrified to look back, Kathy never saw the shooters, but she could tell they were close, very close. She stands over 6 ft.; she knew she made a promising target. So while other kids raced down a first-floor hallway, she leaped up the stairs toward the second floor. She tried the door to one science room, but it was already locked. Furiously she worked her way down the hall, finally to Science Room 3, into which two teachers were herding other kids.
The class had been taking a long, nasty biology test when the explosions came. Lexis Coffey-Berg, 16, saw Sanders running toward them, saw him shot twice in the back, with a jolt and spasm. “You could see the impact,” she says. “You could see it go through his body. He was spitting up blood.” He stumbled into the room, blood streaming from his chest, and collapsed over the desk, knocking out his teeth.
A teacher got the paramedics on the phone, and the classroom turned into a trauma ward. Aaron Hancey, a junior, had had some first-aid training, and the paramedics tried to talk the kids through the basic lifesaving treatment. Boys stripped off their shirts to make pillows for Sanders’ head and bandages for the bloody holes in his torso. They found some emergency blankets stashed with the fire gear in that room and wrapped him up as his temperature started to fall. They could tell they were losing him.
“I can’t breathe,” he murmured. “I’ve got to go.” But they kept talking to him, pulled his wallet out of his pocket and held up the pictures of his daughters. Tell us about them, they said. “He was breathing and awake the whole time,” says Jody Clouse. “I’m sure the pain was great.” They made a sign with the dry-erase board and held it up in the window for the rescuers to see: HELP, BLEEDING TO DEATH. As the students prayed, Sanders every now and then managed to cough and spit out some blood to clear his lungs. But the time kept passing, and no one came. Said Sanders: “I don’t think I’m going to make it.”
On the classroom TVs, the barricaded students could see the SWAT teams assembling, the news choppers hovering and eventually the parents beginning to gather, as they and the rest of the country watched the siege take hold of the school. “[The police] didn’t know where the shooters were, or where the bombs were,” says Lexis, “so they couldn’t get us right away.” Her friends began writing notes to their parents, saying that they loved them, that they thought they were going to die. Everyone was praying. “In a world where there are so many religions,” says Lexis, “everyone was praying the same way.” One friend made a vow. “If I ever get out, I’m going to be nice to my little brother.”
Elsewhere up and down the halls, students locked themselves in closets and classrooms, also calling out on their cell phones. They called police; they called parents; they called for anyone who could come and help get them out. Some could hear sounds of laughing in the hallways, as the shooters prowled through the smoke. They heard the jeering. “Oh, you f__ing nerd. Tonight’s a good night to die.” Senior Nick Foss and a friend ducked into a bathroom, punched through a ceiling panel and shimmied along the ventilation shaft. Suddenly one of the vents broke, and Foss fell 15 ft. down onto a table in the teachers’ lounge. Somehow uninjured, he picked himself up and sprinted out a door to freedom as the shooting continued behind him. “They were shooting everywhere; it seemed like they wanted to kill everything in sight,” he says. “I’ve never been so frightened in my life. It was run for your life or die.”
His twin brother Adam, meanwhile, was in trouble down the hall. He had been in choir practice, preparing for a concert that afternoon at an elementary school. When the shooting started, Adam and about 60 others crammed into the choir-room office as the explosions seemed to come closer and closer. They pushed a filing cabinet and two upended desks against the door. In the hot, stagnant air, several kids began to gag and cough. Shhh, quiet, the others said, fearing any sound would lure the killers, who for all they knew were right outside. The choir room lay near the top of the stairs, close to where the carnage began, and very close to the library where it would finally end.
Someone in the choir room whispered, “Who’s religious? Anybody in here religious?” The huddled students started to pray, very, very quietly. “I was terrified on the outside,” says Craig Nason, a junior. “But on the inside, God gave me peace. I felt like many others outside the school were praying for us.” The walls of the office kept shuddering with each shot and explosion, for an agonizing 20 minutes or so. Then things fell quiet, and they waited. When they reached the police by phone, pleading for rescue, they were told that the police had to move slowly because of possible booby traps. Some students with asthma started having trouble breathing, so others climbed up and pulled out some ceiling tiles, then lifted the students up to where the air was fresher. The quiet was cut when the office phone rang. It was the elementary school calling, wondering why the concert was being delayed.
Many of the kids who made it out the exits ran into the parking lots. Police had heard rumors that the gunmen were exchanging clothes with the students, so everyone had to be checked, patted down, in order for the cops to be sure these were the victims escaping and not the killers. Neighbors arrived with blankets, bandages and gauze and brought kids into their homes. A nurse passing through the area found herself doing triage on a front lawn. The ambulances began shuttling the wounded–the ones who had been able to get out of the building on their own power–to area hospitals. Senior SWAT team agent Donn Kraemer spotted a boy in a window, limp, bleeding, desperate to get out. “He looked at us but was oblivious,” Kraemer said. “He was going to come out headfirst.” Kraemer and another agent grabbed him and pulled him to safety. The boy, with gunshot wounds in the head and foot, was so much in shock that he could barely say his name. Rick or Rich, they thought he said. His name was Patrick Ireland. He had taken two bullets to the head. Last week the 17-year-old was in serious condition, suffering from impaired speech and damaged motor skills to his right side.
Among the countless offers of help that came in during the siege was one the police did not accept. Well before any potential suspects had been named publicly, Klebold’s father contacted police, saying he thought his son might be involved and offering to help negotiate a surrender. The SWAT team leaders decided they didn’t think he could be of any use.
All the while the killers were still inside, going about their business. And in the end, they did their deadliest work in the school’s quiet place, the best place to find people in a school when finals are looming and everyone worries about getting term papers done on time.
A teacher, identified by police only as Peggy, made it into the library a few steps ahead of the killers. First she called the police. Then, over the phone, she could be overheard desperately trying to warn the kids. “There’s a guy with a gun!” she yelled, bleeding. “Kids, under the table! Kids, stay on the floor! Oh, God. Oh, God–kids, just stay down!” At first, Craig Scott thought it was all a prank, maybe the teacher was in on it. But the noise was real, and the fear was real, and he ducked under a table with his friend Matt Kechter and one of Columbine’s few black students, a senior named Isaiah Shoels. And they heard the gunmen come in.
They were laughing, excited. “Who’s next?” they said, “Who’s ready to die?” The two moved through the room, calling out: “All the jocks stand up. We’re going to kill every one of you.” Seth Houy had come to the library to hang out with his sister and a friend; they ducked under a table and he lay on top of them so he would be the one to be hit. “Honestly, I think that God made us invisible,” he told the Denver Post. “We prayed the hardest we’d ever prayed, and God put an invisible shield around us.”
The killers went round the room, asking people why they should let them live. Students heard one girl pleading for her life, then a shot, and quiet. They told wounded kids to quit crying; it will all be over soon, you’ll all be dead. They approached another girl, cowering under a table, yelled “Peekaboo!” and shot her in the neck. Anyone who cried or moaned was shot again.
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