Columbine: 17 Years of Aftershocks
The tragedies keep coming. As we reel from the latest horror, one of those touching vignettes will pop up on the TV, encapsulating the brief life of a victim in thirty seconds, and the remote is already in hand. My thumb hovers over the FF, poised to deflect theses tributes, blot the victims from my awareness. Occasionally, one snares me—just too moving to turn away. Victoria Leigh Soto, the teacher at Newtown, who died protecting her first graders in 2012. Chris Mintz, the former infantry soldier shot three times trying to save classmates at Umpqua Community College in Oregon in 2015. He lived. Sometimes I linger; then I risk a relapse.
Grief is so peculiar. It strikes unpredictably and inconsistently: withstand an onslaught, then succumb to a trifle. When I confessed to a Columbine survivor that I was fast-forwarding through the victim-centric coverage I’d been calling for, she chastised me for indulging at all, once I recognized my particular poison. Victim stories.
Years immersed in the psyches of two killers, that’s the hazard I guarded against. Unnecessary. Eric was like examining a disease under a microscope. He didn’t get inside me. Dylan seeped in surreptitiously. His funeral scene was the second-hardest to write. I cried for his parents, and his brother, and Reverend Don Marxhausen, knowing what that service would cost him. I realized later that I was grieving for Dylan, too. What a sweet, loving kid. Most of his life. That shocked me, but I didn’t grasp how it tormented me. Lost boy, we could have saved him. I see now that I always felt that way, even when I hated him—I just didn’t know.
My sadness for Dylan is dwarfed by sadness for the survivors. Because I met them. The most grisly day of my life was April 21. The day after. The murders were horrifying, obviously, but less tangible. I recall, vividly, receiving the death count. Sheriff Stone, arm’s length away, at his 4:00 p.m. press briefing in Clement Park in the plush grass, April 20. I gasped, caught a dirty look for noise, shuddered, and my jaw hung loose. I could not get it to close. Then, nothing. Get to work! my brain screamed. It was so much worse than I’d imagined. Get to work.
I tried again, to imagine the impact on these people, but who were they? Boys? Girls? Teachers? Who were their families, and what would it do to them? I couldn’t picture anything, or summon a feeling worthy of it, so my brain settled on numb.
I thought the moms and dads of the dead would most distress me. No. It was the lost kids with the vacant eyes. The sea of survivors who had escaped the gunfire and wondered why. They trudged around the vestibule of Light of the World Church, awaiting the first official meeting the morning after. I recognized kids there. I’d seen them running, shouting, wailing, hugging and squeezing so fervently. Adrenaline off the charts. Overnight, they had changed. Dry eyes, mumbled voices, fl at affects, limp hugs. Most unnerving, though, was the collective stillness. All the nervous energy teens radiate—a handful spill into a theater and you can feel the current ricochet off the walls. A thousand teens surrounded me in that chamber, yet I could close my eyes and believe I was totally alone.
The boys, in particular, were barely recognizable. Did they know? Did it scare them? It was terrifying me. I couldn’t figure out how to ask. I didn’t want to be that jerk telling them how they felt.
Later, in Clement Park, where they resumed plodding in packs, I got an idea. I chatted up a group of boys, cocked my head toward another cluster, and mentioned that they didn’t seem to be crying. That was all it took. They couldn’t wait to spill their stories: how and when the tears stopped, abruptly, like a switch flicked off. All afternoon, I heard the same story: different times and situations, but no trigger, no warning, no explanation, just boom: all emotion mute. Which terrified them. Some tried to cry; a girl described feeling detached from her personality, like it had escaped her body, floating out there, somewhere—but how to get it back? Yes! Her friends cried. That was the feeling.
They were so relieved to confess to an adult. They were hoping I could explain it. Was this normal? How long would it last? Exactly the questions I had. And one more, which they must have been thinking, perhaps too scary to broach: Would they get better? Feeling would return, surely, but the damage—was it permanent? Thank God they didn’t ask.
My focus shifted that morning, to the living. I still hadn’t internalized what fi fteen dead meant—thirteen victims and two perpetrators. I felt awful for them, whoever they were, but too late to save them. Here were two thousand kids, in danger but reachable, hopefully.
I’m often asked what made me spend a decade on Columbine. It was that day and those kids. I didn’t see it as a book then, but I knew I’d be with these kids a long time. Eventually, two questions drove me. The second was why. Why drove me nuts. But the question that started and sustained me was what would became of those two thousand kids.
I underestimated the pain I would absorb from them, but also the light. I dedicated this book to the thirteen because of their loss, and Patrick Ireland because he got me through. His recovery was uncanny, and then I got to meet him. That was a gift. The good and bad he told, without pretense or whiff of ego. Each time we spoke, over months and then years, he remained unfazed, unflappable. I clung to the resilience he exuded. If he can overcome that, with grace and humility—and joy—I can do this.
The tragedy set Don Marxhausen in my path. The beloved pastor of a thriving Lutheran congregation, and one of the fi nest human beings I’ve ever encountered. Don went out on a limb to perform Dylan’s funeral. Then he spoke compassionately about Tom and Sue Klebold to the New York Times, describing them as “the loneliest people on the planet.” For those selfless acts, Don lost his church and his career. He never again led a large congregation. Don left Colorado gracefully, returned later to a small mountain community. As of this writing, he’s on his third retirement job: visiting the sick for a small local church, including shut-ins and Alzheimer’s patients, teaching a class or two, and facilitating a grief group for widows.
About nine months after the attack, when he was still at the top of his game, I did a lengthy interview with Don. Then I packed up, shook hands, and walked toward the door. I heard a quizzical tone from behind as I reached for the door: “So how’s your spiritual health?”
I froze. “Kinda shitty.”
“Want to talk about it?”
Kind of unorthodox. But I was a mess. He could see that.
OK, why not?
The next hour was essentially free therapy, with a wise, soothing man devoted to God and His children. Half pastor, half shrink. We talked about my mom, boyfriends, crises in confidence, everything. He urged me to reacquaint with God some way, but he wasn’t pushy or particular about what path: Buddhist, Jewish, or Mormon; Mass, Bible study, retreat… whatever. And he couldn’t have cared less that I was gay. He tried matching my personality to denominations at one point, but mostly it was nonreligious—all the stuff eating me up inside. Don wasn’t trying to convert me, just trying to help. And he did. His wisdom was true, and his challenge demanded a reckoning. I didn’t join a church that day, or AA, but I started working on some things. And the biggest impact came from the simple compassion. Sensing my pain, plucking me from the crowd, letting me know someone cared.
Earlier, someone else did. April 20, I left home about 11:45 A.M. and drove out to this school I’d never heard of, and spent nine hours in Clement Park. Around sunset, I spotted the fi rst Red Cross volunteers. Two guys carrying cardboard boxes sliced into trays with four-inch sides. One had cold water bottles, the other had bags of chips. They walked by calling out, “Anybody thirsty? Hungry?” That triggered it: God, was I parched! Hungry, too, but no time for that.
“Yes!” I said instinctively, and reached out my hand toward the water guy.
He smiled, and handed one over, but before I got a grip on it, I realized my error and stammered something like, “Oh. For the victims. I’m a reporter. Sorry.” I dropped my hand, a little ashamed. Stealing from the collection plate—didn’t mean it, I swear.
I remember the exact words that came next.
“Are you thirsty?”
“Then it’s for you.”
He reached out the bottle again.
I took it.
I think he foresaw something I didn’t: Everyone present was in for a rough ride. Through it all, that tiny act of kindness buttressed my sense of humanity. Somebody cared. More than sixteen years later, I draw solace from the memory.
I didn’t cry April 20. Work takes over—got to keep your head in the game. I was not even aware of it, until Wednesday afternoon, when the tears suddenly came. I included a brief account of the event that set them off in chapter 20. A shriek rang out, everyone ran toward it, and we found Rachel Scott’s friends in a semicircle around her car. The bodies were still in the school. Nowhere to mourn properly, nothing to mourn with. So they decorated her car with candles and flowers, and heartbreaking messages soaped on the windows. An odd thought hit me: Death rituals, I’ve misjudged you. Open caskets, funerals, tombstones—I never liked any of that. But I’d never tried to mourn without them. These girls needed something, a physical object with a Rachel connection to direct their grief. They found her car. They made a little shrine.
And then I felt the wave swell, out of nowhere, and I ran for it before my peers could see me fall apart. I ducked behind the phalanx of TV semitrailers that had materialized overnight. I dropped to the asphalt, propped my back against one of the huge wheels, and wept uncontrollably for ten minutes. A couple technicians roamed by and pretended not to see. And then it was out of me—I thought.
That weekend, I took a day off. I sat down to watch Rachel’s funeral, live on CNN. Huge mistake, I realized that right away. I needed to be there. Not to report it, to vent my own grief. Those people were getting it out.
I drove fast and caught the tail end. Then I queued up to pay my respects at the casket. I couldn’t face looking at her, but obviously the casket would be closed. The line snaked slowly, me in a daze, so it was nearly my turn when I looked up and saw the lid was raised. Oh God. Felt rude to bolt away, so I went through with it. What a relief. So beautiful. But tiny! All the loving stories I’d been hearing, suddenly they all fi t. I could picture this tiny Rachel inhabiting them. I could feel a connection to the dead.
Several times, I broke my promise to stick with those two thousand kids. A week after the attack, I began a long, immersive story about the Evangelical community there. I enrolled in Bible study at Cassie’s church, studying the Book of Revelation. They were kind to me, despite my admission that I was a journalist and lapsed Catholic. I was surprised to discover how much my Catholic Bible’s phrasing varied from theirs. A sweet woman next to me let me share. We remain friends. The story took a month, and I was exhausted. Enough Columbine. Done.
That was May 1999. This book came out nine years and eleven months later. As the “aftershocks” began, I made several brief stints back onto the story. Then a very long slog trying to make sense of the killers. So many times, I said I was through. The public and the media harbored the same delusion. How many times did we assume this was done?
I understand now that I suffered my first bout of depression in 1999. It returned in a different form a few years later when I stopped changing lightbulbs or opening the mail. A year in bills piled up and I was opening the fridge or oven to cook with the light from those tiny bulbs. I should have seen the problem, but it crept up. And I’m happy, bubbly—depression didn’t fit.
Then I wrote the cruelest chapter: Dave Sanders bleeding to death. My mentor, Lucia Berlin, had taught me to write the way Stanislavsky coached method actors: immerse myself in the event, picture myself there, in Science Room 3, as one of the characters, experiencing it, and write that emotion onto the page. I realized only later that the chapter isn’t really about Dave. I never tried to picture it from his point of view. Sebastian Junger described brilliantly what it was like for one of his subjects to drown in The Perfect Storm , because that was what happened to them. My scene was not about how it felt to bleed to death; it was about enduring the horror of a good man slowly dying.
Each day, I’d pick a person who had documented their experience, and went back into Science Room 3 as the terrified girl cowering under a table, or the teacher feeling impotent watching the Eagle Scouts fighting to save his friend. It took a month, and it beat me down. Then I repeated the process with Dylan’s funeral. And finally, in September 2006, three school shootings hit in two weeks. Platte Canyon High was the last, and the worst, because it hit so close: one county over from Jeffco. The hostage standoff lasted for hours. I watched on local TV and poured out my reactions online. A SWAT team stormed the building and the gunman shot his last hostage. Denver news showed the chopper picking up the girl and then landing minutes later on St. Anthony’s, where Patrick Ireland had been saved. We awaited word from her medical team. The longer it lasted, the more I felt hopeful, and invested. That girl had to make it. She did not.
That provoked my one obvious breakdown. Anxiety attacks and sobbing fits all day, much of it in bed. That was when I accepted my limits, and the FF button after shootings. For years, I blamed my shrink. Easier than admitting to “weakness.”
After Columbine, I assumed we would repeat the horror, and worse, and soon. Didn’t happen. For eight years, we suffered a string of mimics—bad, but nothing remotely Columbine bad. Had that been the ceiling? Seemed unlikely, but it seemed to hold.
April 16, 2007, the phone buzzed as I was getting out of bed. Seamus Kelters, a BBC colleague in Belfast. He said he was calling about “the tragic events in Virginia.”
Oh God. How many?
I braced for six or eight. “Upwards of thirty.” I tried to wrap my head around it. Nothing. Just like 1999.
I bounded to the living room, flicked on the TV and muted it, to watch the ghastly pictures as he spoke. No carnage, just hugs. So much squeezing: bodies, faces, tear ducts. Took me right back to Columbine. Fresh background, same pain. First tragedy since I’d imposed limits. I mashed the pause key.
Each attack, I cringe for the survivors. It took a while to realize that new shootings were battering the old survivors. Every time. Coni Sanders is one of the more resilient. “It feels like a dark coldness pumping through a damaged heart,” she told me. “Like I can’t get the blood through my body, so my hands go numb and my limbs get cold. I feel like I am being held down, trapped to remember every horrible moment, every vision of the blood. Like demons stealing my breath. I get dizzy, feel crazy, desperate, sad, and angry all at once. I don’t want anyone else to understand it, because you only understand it when you have been welcomed into a club only the saddest people can enter. The cost of admission is the death of your loved one at the hands of someone else.”
I hear versions of that over and over from the families of the thirteen.
Some dive into a tailspin every time. Hard to watch. Coni gives me strength.
Each shooting knocks her down, then she gets back up. Columbine drew us together, and we settled into each other’s orbits. We started as colleagues, evolved to Facebook friends, now actual friends. Coni responded to Eric and Dylan by earning her PhD in psychology, and working with perpetrators of violence. It requires tremendous empathy for “the enemy.” But that’s the only way to reach them.
Taken from the new epilogue of COLUMBINE by Dave Cullen.