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Remembering Columbine

Good Housekeeping logo Good Housekeeping 7/17/2014 Amanda Robb

It was a crystalline April morning when Dawn Anna pulled into the parking lot of a store to buy a few items on her 18-year-old daughter's off-to-college list. On the radio, she heard a news announcer say, "Police have been called to Columbine High School." Out of curiosity (senior prank? false alarm?), Anna waited for a fuller report. It came within seconds: Gunshots had been fired. Now frightened, Anna raced toward the school. It was shortly after 11:30, so "I knew where Lauren was," Anna says. "She was in the library. I knew what table she was at. It was at the entrance to the library. I thought, I'll walk in and pull her out and say, 'Honey, we're going home.'" But while Anna was still on the highway, the announcer became deathly specific. Students in the library were wounded — perhaps mortally. Anna tried to say the prayer that would be instinctive to most parents, "God, don't let Lauren be dead." But, she says, "I could not pray those words." They just wouldn't come out. "Because I would be asking God for another child to be killed. How does any mother do that? So I stopped myself cold. I said, 'God, something horrible is happening. My daughter is in the middle of it. Whatever is going on, help us all be strong and prepare for whatever is going to happen.'"

Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis was in his office when his secretary came in and told him there had been a shooting in the school. As DeAngelis remembers it, he walked into the hallway that runs between the gym and auditorium and was startled to find a gunman coming toward him, then to hear glass (the doors at the west entrance) shattering behind him. The boy was shooting — at DeAngelis. The way everyone else remembers it, the principal ran directly into a hail of rapid gunfire. Still, DeAngelis's memories are in slow motion. "I just thought so vividly, I am going to die. I kept thinking about my family. What is it going to feel like to die? To be shot?"

Noise from a girls' PE class approaching the main corridor broke DeAngelis's trance, as he realized the students would walk straight into the line of fire unless he could shove them into one of the locked rooms in the gym off the same hallway. DeAngelis carried a ring with 35 keys on it. On that day, he pulled out the one key that opened every door in the building and pushed 20 or so girls into a storage room in the gym.

"For the last 10 years, I've tried to do that again with the keys," DeAngelis says, "and have not done it since." But the bigger mystery was why the gunman didn't shoot the principal when he had him dead in his sights. The answer would come two years later, when the police re-creation of the crime scene was made public. As DeAngelis moved to intercept the class, Dave Sanders, a Columbine teacher and coach (and DeAngelis's good friend), ran up a nearby staircase to continue his efforts to evacuate students. The gunman turned and shot Sanders, who bled to death three hours later.

Upstairs in the library, 52 students heard popping sounds that most dismissed as construction noise until an art teacher who'd been injured by flying debris ran in. The teacher dialed 911, and yelled for them to get under the tables.

Shy Kacey Ruegsegger, 17, a junior, was in the library because the girl she always ate lunch with was absent that day. As the room filled with smoke, she took cover under a table near the computers. Two students in long black coats entered carrying guns and backpacks. The gunmen yelled for all "jocks" to get up. No one did. A shooter said, "Fine, I'll start shooting." They did, hitting three junior boys sitting together under a table. When one went to try to help another, they shot him again — in the head.

Ruegsegger, who'd recently transferred to the school, was praying. "I felt a hand on my back," she says. When she turned, "No one was there. I just felt complete peace. I didn't know if I was going to die, but it didn't matter because that angel who was with me completely put me at peace." A 14-year-old boy hiding under the table behind Kacey, Steven Curnow, was shot dead through the neck. A second later, a bullet shattered the upper third of Ruegsegger's shoulder, grazed her throat, and hit her thumb, severing an artery. "God gave me the calmness to stop the bleeding," she says. While she lay still and staunched the bleeding with her other hand, the shooters moved on.

They came upon a table of athletes. But the gunmen seemed to have forgotten their particular hatred of jocks. Instead, they made ugly racist comments to the one black student under the table, 18-year-old Isaiah Shoels, a popular senior who at 4'11" could bench-press twice his weight; then they shot him dead in the chest. They did the same to 16-year-old sophomore and straight-A football player Matthew Kechter, then moved on, ignoring a third boy under the table who pretended to be dead.

During the rampage, they threw a homemade CO2 (dry ice) bomb. They let an injured student toss it out of the way. They called cowering girls at another table "pathetic." But when they came to the table near the entrance where Dawn Anna's daughter Lauren Townsend hid, gunman Dylan Klebold fired his weapon as fast as he possibly could, killing her. Moments before she was shot, Townsend had comforted two girls who were huddling with her, telling them, "Everything will be OK. Everything will be all right."

For many Americans, especially parents, the massacre on April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO, was a nightmare come true: You do everything humanly possible to keep your kids safe. You raise them in a community with decent values, pure air, and clean water; send them to a first-rate school, with bands and teams and clubs and stratospheric test scores. And it still fails to protect them from getting shot with battle-grade weapons.

It's hard to imagine enduring such heartache, such rage. Or, for the students and teachers, such terror. Yet many survivors of the experience they all call The Tragedy have woven grief, disbelief, and anger into lives filled with meaning — and, yes, even joy. The paths they took are idiosyncratic, yet it's striking that all of them refer to their "new normal" — meaning they feel OK. Most of the time.

Getting to OK was "very difficult," admits DeAngelis. In July 1999, three months after the shootings, the principal was named in eight lawsuits, all claiming he was in some way responsible for the massacre, which left 13 dead (12 students and one teacher) and injured 24 others. The plaintiffs alleged that the principal had favored athletes and allowed kids to be bullied; that he had known the gunmen, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (who committed suicide at the scene), were violent and yet had done nothing about it. No matter how sure you are of your professional intentions and integrity, says DeAngelis — who had been a popular social studies teacher and coach, then administrator, for 20 years — "reading about how awful you are, you begin to question, 'Are these people right?'"

After much prayer and reflection, DeAngelis decided it was not up to him or others to judge. "I am a cradle Catholic," he says, meaning that he was born and raised in the Church. "So I know my judgment comes after." His belief freed him from getting sucked into a black hole of defensiveness. Instead, at the urging of a family friend who is a Vietnam veteran, he embarked on an intensive course of faith-based counseling, which he continues to this day.

"I try to role model that [for everyone directly affected by the events of that day]," he says. "Because it really did save me." Like many who have been through traumatic events, DeAngelis suffers from recurring nightmares, lack of concentration (he's been in four car accidents, two in the month of April, near the shooting's anniversary date), survivor guilt (about all the students and teachers who were killed or wounded, but especially his friend Dave Sanders, whom DeAngelis believes was shot in his place), and anxiety attacks so intense he sometimes thinks he is having a heart attack. Therapy taught him coping skills; among them, setting aside an hour every workday to spend time in classrooms.


Watching the rituals of learning reminds DeAngelis why he became an educator. And, he says with no small amount of pride, "the kids rallied around me." The first year, many had an extremely difficult time. Some were terrified by fire drills. Others were traumatized by the idea of eating the food the cafeteria had served that day. (DeAngelis forever banned Chinese food from the Columbine menu.) "There were students who had to go back into the same classroom where Dave Sanders died." (Sanders struggled from the hall at the top of the stairs to the science labs, where another teacher helped him into a room.) Students also had to walk up the same stairs where they saw the gunmen shoot to death freshman Daniel Rohrbough, 15.

"And every time I walked out of my office, I saw a gunman coming at me," DeAngelis says. "But I told the students, 'We can get through this together.'" Though full of purpose, the principal's 12- to 16-hour days took a toll (DeAngelis says he now recommends to other schools that suffer shootings that they hire two principals for at least a year — one to run the day-to-day operations; one to deal with the aftermath of the violence). His 17-year marriage unraveled and his wife filed for divorce. "If I had to do it over again, I would have brought my family into therapy, too. I was aloof. I didn't want to relive things by talking, and as a result we grew apart," he says. "If someone could have sat us down and said, 'This is the expected behavior as the result of tragedy,' I think it would have made things easier."

When "Why me? Poor me?" ate at him, DeAngelis battled it the way his mother taught him, by focusing on those suffering more. Every Saturday for months, he drove to Englewood, CO, to check on four students who were recovering at Craig Hospital, a major brain and spinal cord rehab center. Three of them could not walk, and one could not complete a sentence. DeAngelis told them he wanted to hand them their diplomas. One of the paralyzed boys, freshman Sean Graves, 15, told the principal he was going to get out of the wheelchair to receive it. "Those kids cured my self-pity," DeAngelis says.

When Kacey Ruegsegger was finally loaded into an ambulance, more than an hour after she'd been shot, she asked the medics if they were going to cut off her arm because, "from what I saw," Ruegsegger says, "there was no way they can fix this." Doctors at the hospital wrestled with what to do. A third of her shoulder was gone, as was the top of her arm. The only things keeping her arm attached were an artery, nerves, veins, and skin. Over the next few days, Ruegsegger's parents learned that the best option for saving Kacey's limb would be to transplant tissue — bone, joint, and tendon — from a cadaver donor. They signed on the dotted line.

Ruegsegger spent two weeks in the hospital recovering from the initial surgeries, every minute of it in the company of nurses. In those sometimes foggy, often painful, hugely frightening days and nights, she changed her career plans. Before the shooting, Ruegsegger had wanted to be a teacher.

"But [the nurses] made me want to make a difference in somebody else's life that same way," she says. So after college, she trained to become an oncology nurse.

The desire to "make a difference" would only intensify for Ruegsegger, who this past winter had an eighth surgery to remove a bone spur, transfer a muscle, lengthen a tendon, and fracture a bone to promote more healing. She also came to accept how deeply and permanently The Tragedy had affected her. To this day, she is terrified by loud noises and big crowds. And, of course, she is afraid of libraries, as well as people in overcoats. In the past, "if someone walked into the grocery store wearing a really big coat, I used to just leave my cart and walk out," she says. "Now I try to tell myself, 'He's just in here to buy food.' But when you're that one person, out of all the millions who go to school, who gets shot there, you always feel like you have a target on you."

And yet she thinks having been a gunshot victim makes her very good at helping other people through trauma. "Just like one day my life was turned completely upside down, my patients are with their Stage IV cancer diagnosis. When they are struggling with chemo or what to do with their families or just getting the diagnosis, I empathize. My favorite part of my job is when I can go sit with patients who feel so lost and discouraged and like they don't have any hope, and I say, 'Can I share my story with you?' "

For 36 hours after The Tragedy, until authorities confirmed the names of those slain, Matthew Kechter was among the students listed as missing. When his parents, Ann and Joe Kechter, were finally able to bury him on April 27, both felt as if they were going crazy. In the days after the shooting, Ann, 50, who works as an energy trader for a local utility, slept with Matt's dirty clothes in his bed and put milk away in the cupboard instead of the refrigerator. Some days, she would get up with the goal of simply breathing. Having quit smoking for 13 years, Joe, 51, a builder, started again. When Ann went to the grocery store, she felt like the whole place stopped and stared at her in pained recognition or turned away because they didn't know what to say. The occasional person who didn't rubberneck would run over, throw her arms around Ann's neck, and sob — prompting the Kechters' then-12-year-old son, Adam (a student at the local middle school), to ask, "What do they expect us to do — curl up and die?" Well, yeah, Ann felt like answering, though she knew their family was stronger than that. Anyway, with a surviving child, dying wasn't an option. After the funeral, the whole family went into counseling. What became clear right away was not only how much the Kechters missed Matthew, but how much they missed the rough-and-tumble of having two kids. Adam was desperately lonely without a sibling. Ann and Joe had untapped reserves of parental energy, of love.

"Our first thought was foster care," Joe says. "But our counselor talked us out of it because you have to give the children back, and she didn't think we could handle more loss."

So in September 2001, more than two years after Matt's death, 8-year-old Ashley — a product of four foster homes — joined the Kechters, who had moved 30 miles away from Littleton. They chose an older child because, Ann says, "we were too old to start over and too young to give up." They chose Ashley, who had been through so much for a young girl, "because considering everything, it felt like a good match."

The process, though, was far from a feel-good Frank Capra movie. "It was like trying to hug a cactus," Ann says. Ashley was quiet and withdrawn; then slowly — very slowly — she warmed up to her new father and brother. She and Ann, however, were having some trouble bonding. So, even though she felt that Ashley "completed" their family, four years after losing Matthew, Ann still found it extraordinarily difficult to "wake up and find joy" in life.

"My children motivated me to put my chin up," she says, "but inside I was struggling."

Then, in 2003, Joe saw an ad for a horse ranch near their new home. He thought riding was something Ann and Ashley could do together. Ann had ridden a little as a child but hadn't thought about it much since. When she finally ventured off to the ranch Joe found, she went alone.

She got on her horse, Chico, and, of all things, started talking. "I told him, 'I have this son Matthew...'" The chat felt so good, Ann returned to ride as soon as she could. And again. "I said, 'Thank you, God, for bringing me to the ranch and finding this. You know I love Matthew so much. I know he's here with me.'" At that moment, a hawk came flying down right over her head. Since then, Ann says, almost every time she rides and talks to Matt, a hawk flies close by. She and Joe have come to regard the hawk as emblematic of Matt's spirit.

Within weeks, Ashley accepted Ann's invitation to join her on some of her rides. Ashley, now 15, turned out to be a natural horsewoman.

"We had the best summer," Ann recalls. Often with Ashley's Girl Scout leader and her daughter, "we'd ride, eat lunch, and ride some more. We'd see bears, elk, coyotes, and wild turkeys. We'd keep the horses close. We'd camp in the ranch's barn."

Finally, the Kechter women had made a bond. "To this day," Joe says, "I can tell when Ann has been to the ranch."

"What he's trying to say," Ann laughs, "is that I'm a bitch when I don't go."

By the third anniversary of The Tragedy, Lauren Townsend's mother, Dawn Anna, had grown "very tired of Lauren being remembered for the last moments of her life. They were glorious. They were profound. They should be celebrated," Anna says. "But for Lauren to be remembered for only those seven-and-a-half minutes in the library is very, very unfair. Because she had 18 fun-loving, silly years before that." Not to mention a vocation she was extremely committed to. So at the commemoration of the fifth anniversary, Anna (who acts as the spokeswoman for families of those murdered at the high school) decided to change the tone. Instead of focusing on the victims' deaths, she talked about their lives and contributions. "Because with all respect to those who were wounded and traumatized, we're walking, we're breathing, and we can build our legacies," Anna says. "But those 13 are silenced. We need to speak for them."

Lauren Townsend's vocation was protecting animals of every kind. She worked for a local veterinarian, often begged to bring home pets she felt were not being well cared for by their owners, and planned to study biology in college. Though she had a keen premonition of her own early death (amazingly, she left a four-page will and, shortly before the shooting, wrote in her diary that she had "learned and done everything God wanted me to do here"), Townsend was also determined to live in service to wildlife.

To honor her daughter's passion, Anna started the Lauren Townsend Memorial Wildlife/Scholarship Fund (administered by denverfoundation.org) — a nonprofit that supports animal-rescue groups. So far the fund has given away $150,000 in scholarships and grants. "So," Anna says, "Lauren has built pens for coatimundi [cousins of raccoons] and a transitional home for cougars that have been kept as pets [and then abandoned]; fed dozens of sick horses, and paid for a screech owl named Lulu [Lauren's nickname] to visit children at schools; and rescued countless animals who've been hit by cars or mistreated."

In a very concrete way, Anna continues to parent her child. This is not a maudlin task for her, but a joyous one. It keeps Lauren close.

"Her fund does what Lauren would be doing if she were here physically," Anna says. "I say 'physically' because she is still here with our family emotionally and spiritually."

Right after The Tragedy, Frank DeAngelis received thousands of letters. Most were kind and supportive, but some said things like "you have the blood of those children on your hands" or contained death threats. His counselor told him to stop reading them. DeAngelis did, for three years. But in 2002, as he was waiting for his divorce to finalize, he decided to clean out his basement and read them. "I was feeling sorry for myself," he admits. One of the first cards he opened was from his high school sweetheart, who lived near Denver.

DeAngelis called her. "We talked like we never stopped talking." They now are engaged and will be married as soon as they receive formal annulments from the Catholic Church.

Beyond his own healing, DeAngelis believes that over the past years some good things have come about for the school community. "I think our students are more tolerant. I think there is heightened awareness. I think when people do see a potential danger in their school or in their community, they act on it immediately. I think that has prevented several events at other schools from occurring." The students report rumors, he says, and teachers and administrators act on the merest hint of violence. But no matter what, DeAngelis says, "we will always be Columbine. We will always be associated with one of the worst school shootings in the nation." And that is something, the principal admits, he struggles with, sometimes daily. Even though all lawsuits against him were dismissed, even though anger at him has greatly diminished and compassion has grown proportionally, "there is always this guilt," he says. "I was the person in charge."

Others, too, have struggled to put Columbine safely in the past.

In 2005, Kacey Ruegsegger married Patrick Johnson, a local business owner she met in church. They had a baby daughter, Mallory, a year ago. "I don't want to instill my fears in her," she says. "But I'm really going to have a hard time when she goes to school. That's going to be very difficult for me."

Joe Kechter draws a wave in the air. "You still go down," he says. "There are always downs."

Dawn Anna adds, "Do I still cry? You bet your booty I still cry."

Although they have very different spiritual profiles — Frank DeAngelis is a middle-aged divorced Catholic, Kacey Ruegsegger is a young Evangelical Christian wife and mother, Dawn Anna is a grandmother whose personal cathedral is now nature — each cites the same two sources of strength: The first is a fierce faith in a heavenly purpose and plan, and an absolute sureness that their suffering is part of it. Says Ruegsegger: "I believe I was shot partly because my family could handle it, while maybe someone else's family could not."

The second sounds as simple — and as corny — as an aphorism stitched on an old sampler: Each strives relentlessly to help others.

In addition to always reaching out to other schools when shootings occur, DeAngelis remains uncompromising in his effort to "make Columbine a better, safer place." Does that mean metal detectors? Cameras? "People always ask that," he says. "The litmus test I always give is, would it have stopped Klebold and Harris? Metal detectors wouldn't have worked because they would have bypassed them or shot the people manning them. And we had a camera system in place. Klebold and Harris actually posed for it." A more effective approach, DeAngelis believes, is to spend money on educating students to be tolerant and kind, and to be safe. Today, Columbine High School has a diversity club and peer counseling. Teachers are trained to identify and respond to potentially violent students. Students are advised — repeatedly — on the various ways (in person, by computer or phone, in an anonymous-tip box) they can report behavior or activity that frightens them.

"But the million-dollar question," says DeAngelis, "is, What caused so much hate in the hearts of Klebold and Harris? And that's difficult." DeAngelis has asked the FBI. He has asked psychologists. He asked his own priest. No one really knows. And in the decade since Columbine, not every school shooting has been averted. Not in Blacksburg, VA; not in Red Lake, MN; and not in the Amish country of Pennsylvania.

Kacey Ruegsegger also reaches out to school-shooting victims. In 2007, she visited the Virginia Tech campus days after a student gunman killed 32 people there. "I wanted to encourage them and give them hope, and let them know life will become normal again. Just a different kind. 'New normal.'" She advocates for tissue donation. In 2005, she rode on the Donate Life float in the Rose Parade. Though still shy, given any opportunity, she'll point out that in addition to donating organs, you can also donate bones, tendons, muscles — and she'll tell you how. (Go to donatelife.net.) After all, Ruegsegger reasons, she would have lost an arm if someone hadn't donated the bones that allow her to be a nurse, and to hold her baby.

The Kechters reach out to those who've lost children. Overwhelmed by the attention they received after Matthew died (TV producers actually sneaked into their home), they feel lucky to have had so much support — from Matt's friends, from neighbors, from total strangers. After Columbine, they point out, the whole nation mourned with them. "Most people," Ann has learned from talking with other bereaved parents, "are kind of outcasts after losing a child." So the Kechters participated in a documentary called Space Between Breaths. (Go to spacebetweenbreaths.com.) In the film, moms and dads whose children died from cancer, car accidents, suicide, and terrorist attacks share how they went on living after those losses, winding their way back to meaningful lives.

With each passing year, says DeAngelis, there are more and more good days. One great one was in May 2002, when Sean Graves, one of the kids who'd been paralyzed by gunshot wounds, graduated from Columbine. "He had taken sporadic steps," DeAngelis says. "But on graduation day he wheeled on stage, then all of a sudden got out of the wheelchair and walked across the stage to get his diploma." Just as he had promised his principal he would.

Among those who were injured, or lost loved ones, or were just scared out of their minds on that April day, are people who remain in intense psychological pain: Some descended into alcoholism, some left their families, and some fell into depressions so deep they cannot work, and live in shelters or are dependent upon charity. Not one person profiled here would say, "It really doesn't affect me anymore" — or pass judgment upon those who've had a more difficult time dealing with a tragedy that still defies comprehension.

The massacre has deeply influenced their choice of professions, their political activism, their creative pursuits, and their spiritual life. But aside from an attraction to so-called helping professions and a deeper connection to religious communities, there is no uniformity among them. And that in itself is striking. It proves there are as many ways to survive as there are survivors.

"There is nothing wrong with being on your knees," says Anna. "There is nothing wrong with being down in the darkness. There is nothing wrong with staying there as long as you need to." Tears welling in her eyes, in one hand a snapshot of her daughter in shorts and a floppy explorer's hat, and in the other a photo of a cougar Lauren's foundation rescued, Anna quietly offers that she knows one way to start "crawling towards the light. The hole in your heart will never get smaller," she says. "Never. So there is only one way to make it feel smaller. Grow your heart bigger every day."

Amanda Robb lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.

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