One Columbine Story
Twenty-three years ago this week, I was set to take my teenage daughter to an appointment when my editor at the Columbine Community Courier, Casey Ehmsen, called, “There’s been a shooting at Columbine High School. Can you go?”
I left my daughter at home and raced to the high school about five minutes away, parked next to Leawood Park, and ran across Pierce Street into the north parking lot and to the policemen standing there. The looks in their eyes and on their faces told me that this was the big one and it was going to be a long day, at least.
I said to a policeman, “I’m from the community paper. I’m going to follow you.” The policemen didn’t say no, so I stood there with the police and looked around. No police tape was up. The adjacent Clement Park was silent. The school parking lot was silent.
How strange, and awful, it is to realize that, as we stood in the silence, as police stood there, terrible violence and death were occurring inside the building.
The next few days were mostly a blur. The air became filled with the sounds of helicopters and sirens that went on and on and on as more police and ambulances and fire trucks arrived, so many came from all over the Metro area, and the ATF came.
There was a moment when I thought about running to the south side of the school, but a tangible presence impressed me to stay put. An angel? At another moment I had a vague feeling of what I can only describe as darkness or evil going over my head, followed by light or goodness, chasing it away.
I remember that people arrived, converged, huddled. My photographer arrived. I connected with him and then I tried to focus on collecting information, reporting. Students started running out of the building and I questioned a young man: who, what, when, where, why, how? I repeated those questions a hundred times over the next few hours.
A memorial in Clement Park grew and grew and grew. I was near it for three days straight; three days, I can’t really remember, just bits and pieces. Names on signs and crosses for the victims. People crying, people praying.
One thing I remember is students standing in line and loading into a yellow school bus when a woman ran past, asking, “Have you seen Mr. Sanders?” (The students said nothing. This was Dave Sanders, the science teacher, who was killed.)
Another memory is the first press conference in Clement Park at a shelter. The communications person for Jeffco Public Schools stood right in front of me. She looked like a deer in the headlights. I asked, did she want to express condolences to parents and community? She snapped out of the shock and said that she did, yes, and then she kicked into action.
Also, I recall the faces of the local press people who surrounded me at that first conference and the information officer for the Jeffco Sheriff’s Office, Steve Davis, I can recall.
Also, the media mushroom cloud is a name I gave to the media presence that exploded from where I had been alone, just a little community newspaper reporter standing with the police. The cloud would grow and grow and grow in the days ahead, and the national media would come and build platforms for their reporters in the park.
I filed my initial story with my editor that day, he looked it over, added to it, and published it for the community. Turns out, we got it right, the numbers, the horror, the sorrow, the confusion, the response. That was good.
However, what mattered most to me, and what became my purpose and the purpose of Casey and other staff from other local papers, was to serve the community and to help it heal in the first year after the shooting at Columbine. We did that as best we could. Community journalism is different in that way. That was good.
There was a lot of weirdness in covering Columbine and in covering the aftermath of Columbine. I could only do it for about a year and then I left the small weekly and left journalism to work at a coffee shop and then in communications and my own projects. The Dart Center on Journalism interviewed me on why I left. That was okay.
On this twenty-third anniversary, I’m remembering the Columbine victims and I’m reflecting on what I really learned at Columbine: Evil is real, but so is good. Good overcomes evil because God is good.
C.S. Boddie writes for Meadowlark Press.
Image: Shawn Campbell