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Death goes to school with cold, evil laughter

Published April 21, 1999 at 2:41 p.m.

Emergency workers treat the wounded outside Columbine High School Tuesday after gunmen fired on those inside.

Emergency workers treat the wounded outside Columbine High School Tuesday after gunmen fired on those inside.

The two came to school Tuesday in fatigues, pipe bombs strapped to their chests and shotguns and high-powered pistols under long black coats.

About 11:30 a.m. they went to work wearing masks, shredding their classmates with bullets, laughing as they went, turning Columbine High School, home of the Rebels, into the scene of the deadliest school shooting in American history.

As many as 25 died - maybe even more, police said. Twenty-one were wounded, half of them critically. They were shot in the chest and back, head and legs. One girl had nine shrapnel wounds.

"We're talking a war zone," said Steven Greene, whose son, a senior, escaped unharmed. "I can't believe I live in a war zone."

The carnage ended when the gunmen - Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, both juniors at Columbine - shot themselves while they were in the school library. A SWAT team found the bodies shortly before 4 p.m.

But the agony mounted.

Emergency room doctors struggled to save the wounded while coroners worked to identify the dead.

Parents waited for word of their children while police searched the school late into the night, disarming more than a dozen bombs inside and out, stepping over the bodies where they had fallen.

"It's just going to take us some time because of how many rooms we have bodies in," Jefferson County sheriff's spokesman Steve Davis said.

A booby-trapped BMW in the Columbine parking lot was intentionally blown up. A search of one gunman's home turned up explosives. The explosion of two backpacks a mile from the school 40 minutes before the shooting may have been linked to the tragedy.

There were two arrests: friends of Klebold and Harris who authorities said didn't take part in the shooting.

In all, 300 to 500 officers were working on the case.

Authorities said the gunmen were members of the Trench Coat Mafia, a loose-knit group of current and former Columbine students fascinated with computers and drama. The two suspected gunmen attended Saturday's after-prom party at the school.

Several students said the gunmen targeted minorities.

"He said, 'We are going to shoot black people,"' one girl quoted a gunman as saying as she begged him not to kill her. "Then he shot a black guy sitting next to me. He shot the black kid in the head."

Other students said the gunmen targeted athletes.

"They said 'All the jocks stand up. We're going to kill every single one of you,"' said Aaron Cohn, who hid under a table.

Still others saw only random shooting. "They didn't care whom they shot," one student said. "They were just shooting."

Cohn saw that, too. He heard one of the gunman say "peekaboo" then shoot someone hiding under a table.

"They laughed," Cohn said. "They were just hooting and hollering. Having the time of their life."

Authorities late Tuesday knew of no motive for the rampage.

"It appears to be a suicide mission," Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone said.

President Clinton asked the nation to pray.

"If it can happen here, then surely people will recognize that they have to be alive to the possibility that it can occur in any community in America and maybe that will help us to keep it from happening again," Clinton said. "Tonight, I think the American people ought to be thinking about those folks in Littleton."

Gov. Bill Owens met with grieving parents. "It was tough," Owens said afterward. "Some of them have found their children and some have not.

"It's a Colorado tragedy."

It was a day when gunfire and explosions turned the neighborhood of upper-middle class homes and wide, quiet streets inside out. A day when the school's library and cafeteria became smoke-filled battlefields, and bathrooms and heating vents became havens.

And it took everyone at the school, save at least two, completely by surprise.

Some thought initially that all the noise was a senior prank. Others thought it was a science experiment.

"I was upstairs in the tech lab when I heard what I thought was hammering," teacher Kevin Tucker said. "I wondered: Who's hammering during class?"

Within seconds, hundreds of students and teachers poured out of the school, running to safety in nearby Clement Park, behind cars and in neighboring homes.

All was chaos. Helicopter ambulances used a sports field as a landing pad. Paramedics treated victims on the lawn. Police surrounded the school, preparing to burst in under a cover of gunfire. Terrified parents rushed to the scene, abandoning their cars in the middle of the street, squeezing under fences to get to their children.

Hundreds of students and teachers were trapped in the school for hours, hiding and praying.

"I was so scared I didn't know what to do," said Jill Shakowski, a sophomore who hid on top of a toilet in a stall.

"I don't want to die," freshman Justin Scott kept thinking as he huddled in a classroom for more than three hours.

Sophomore Amanda Stair was in the library when she heard a commotion in the hall.

"We hid under different tables," Stair said. "Two guys in black trench coats walked in. They said get up or they would shoot us. I heard a lot of shots and one guy put his gun down on the desk I was under."

The fire alarm went off and a gunman shot it. The library reeked of gunpowder. Students cried and screamed.

The gunmen said they shouldn't.

"Don't worry," one said. "You're going to be dead in a few minutes."

They lived, spared when the assailants left for the cafeteria.

Sophomore Jenny Matthews, 16, and her friend Brian Anderson were walking in a hall when they heard shots. Anderson recognized one of the boys with a gun.

A paint gun, he thought. Anderson approached and the gunman turned and shot Anderson twice in the chest.

"Oh, my God, I've been shot," Anderson cried. He lived.

Matthews and several other students ran down the hall. A teacher yelled for the kids to get out of the building. Then the teacher stopped to call police. She was shot twice in the head.

It was a day full of luck, good and bad.

"We felt shots whizzing by our heads," said sophomore Chris Wisher, who came across a gunman. "Then he stopped for some reason - I think to reload."

Recalled another student: "We were all under the table and the girl across the table from me was shot in the head right there."

For Melynda Bae, the difference between life and death was a matter of inches.

Bae, a sophomore, was standing in the commons area next to another girl when she saw the gunmen through a large window.

They lowered their shotguns at them and fired, blowing out the glass. Bae and the other girl ran, side by side, past a series of windows that shattered one after another with a deafening roar.

Suddenly, the other girl wasn't running with her anymore.

"I saw her fall down," Bae said. "Blood was everywhere. It was just terrible."

Bae kept running and running. Later, it all caught up with her.

"Why didn't I stop to help that girl?" she asked herself. "I'm so mad," she said quietly. "I was so selfish."

She wasn't, of course. And neither was Dave Sanders, the girls basketball coach who ran through the school warning students, showing them the way out.

Suddenly, a gunman appeared and shot Sanders once in each shoulder.

He scrambled to a classroom. Inside, about 20 students were hiding. Some removed their shirts to make a pillow for him. Kent Friesen, a science teacher, asked if anyone knew first aid. Aaron Hancey, a junior and an Eagle Scout, stepped forward.

Hancey covered Sanders with wool blankets that are kept in every science classroom. For more than three hours, he and Columbine sophomore Kevin Starkey took turns applying pressure to Sanders' wounds until a SWAT team got to them.

So many police agencies responded to the scene that the surrounding streets were blocked three and four deep by squad cars, trucks, even an armored personnel carrier.

Officers searching the school room by room began bringing out kids who were left behind after 2:45 p.m. One group after another, students streamed out, hands above their heads. When they got to safety, they were frisked.

At one checkpoint a block north, police patted the students down - then gave them hugs.

Police turned nearby Leawood Elementary into a center for parents desperate for news of their children. Busloads of students began arriving there, and parents rushed forward to embrace them.

But then a terrible pall fell over the rest when they realized their children were not on board. Some wept. Others stared straight ahead, stunned.

School districts around the metro area were shaken by bomb scares and fear. Denver and Cherry Creek schools dispatched additional security guards to some schools. Jefferson County locked down several schools and canceled all after-school activities.

The Columbine massacre is the latest in a string of school shootings across the nation since 1997 that have led to calls for tighter security. Two died at a school in Pearl, Miss. Three in West Paducah, Ky.. Five in Jonesboro, Ark. Two in Springfield, Ore.

Twelve deaths - less than half the toll at Columbine Tuesday.

"This kind of thing is always in the back of your mind, but you never think it can happen," Tucker, the teacher, said. "I guess it can happen anywhere."

Contributing to this story were: Karen Abbott, Charley Able, John Accola, Tustin Amole, Mike Anton, Lynn Bartels, Suzanne Brown, Ann Carnahan, Norm Clarke, Michele Conklin, Carla Crowder, John Ensslin, Kevin Flynn, Fillie Fong, Dick Foster, Joe Garner, Gary Gerhardt, Manny Gonzales, Shelley Gonzales, Tina Griego, Hector Gutierrez, Angel Hernandez, Burt Hubbard, Ann Imse, Rebecca Jones, Lou Kilzer, Sue Lindsay, Dan Luzadder, Gary Massaro, Berny Morson, Mike Patty, Michael Romano, Michael Rudeen, Lisa Levitt Ryckman, John Sanko, Bill Scanlon, Janet Simon, M.E. Sprengelemeyer, Scott Stocker, Lori Tobias, Kevin Vaughan, Jean Torkelson, Brian Weber, Randy Lynch, Mary Winter and Mark Wolf.

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