12 Years Ago Today

Remembering Columbine After All These Years


I remember working in the office of The Onion in Lower Downtown Denver, next door to Coors Field. It was a normal Tuesday;  I was changing a CD on the boombox, right around lunchtime. That’s when I got a call from my friend Steve Freeland, telling me to turn on the television. 

By the time I made it home, the local news stations were crazy with chaos. There were members of the “Trenchcoat Mafia” getting arrested a few blocks away (no connection), conflicting reports about the numbers of dead and injured, footage of students falling from windows and running outside, panic all over their faces, parents freaking out…I’ll never forget that evening. Even late into the night there was no way of telling what exactly had really happened or how many had been killed.

To wit: look at the headline in the Post. Only 15 people died that day, but the scene was so horrific, no one had an accurate count when the paper went to press.

That headline in the Rocky (“Heartbreak”) didn’t feel nearly strong enough to encapsulate what had happened, but the paper took home a Pulitzer the next year for Breaking News Photography.

In the days that followed, Denver looked and felt like it had taken a gut-punch. I remember grocery shopping in Wheat Ridge, a suburb several miles north of Columbine, watching customers and cashiers break down and bawl on each others’ shoulders. It was such a monumental, unfathomably violent and unpredictable event — it felt like the whole city was struck by a comet of hurt. Everyone, it seemed, was affected.

At the time, I was freelancing for the Denver Post and I recall that it took a couple weeks before any of my editors was able to take a phone call from me. 

Even us jaded cynics at The Onion were stunned out of our comedic stance. It was hard to write about anything entertaining or funny for a long while. Finally,  just less than six months after the tragedy, the Madison office sent us a story that we ran in the Denver/Boulder edition.  I know laughter helps healing, and I’m glad it ran, but  I can remember wincing when I first saw it.

Today, a dozen years later, Columbine is giving students the day off. For the parents of Cassie Bernall, Steven Curnow, Corey DePooter, Kelly Fleming, Matthew Ketcher, Isiah Shoels, Rachel Scott, Dan Rohrbough, Danial Mauser, John Tomlin, Lauren Townsend, and Kyle Velasquez, and the family of teacher Dave Sanders, this must be an awful day. 

And remember, dozens of other students still bear the bullet wounds they received on that morning of insanity.

I saved those newspapers because they represented not just a historical day in Denver, but a day where more than a little bit of innocence evaporated forever, after which things were never the same. Even though I didn’t know anyone involved in the tragedy, it illustrated how even a major city like Denver, Colorado, could suddenly feel small and vulnerable.


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