TUESDAY, APRIL 20, 1999, started like
any other school day in our house. At five forty-five Brad, my husband,
left for work, and a little later I got up to wake the kids. Getting
teenagers out of bed is always a small battle, but that Tuesday was especially
difficult. Cassie had stayed up late the night before catching up on
homework, and her books were all over the kitchen table. Her cat's litter
box needed attention, too, and we were running late with breakfast. I
remember trying not to lecture her about all the things that needed doing
before she left for school. About seven-twenty Chris kissed me good-bye,
or at least gave me his cheek, which is what it's gone to lately (he's fifteen)
and clattered down the stairs and out of the house. Cassie stopped at the
door to put on her shoes - her beloved black velvet Doc Martens, which she wore
rain or shine, even with dresses - grabbed her backpack, and headed after her
brother. As she left I leaned over the banister to say good-bye, like I
always do: Bye, Cass. I love you. Love you too,
Mom, she mumbled back. Then she was gone, through the back yard,
over the fence, and across the soccer field to the high school, which is only a
hundred yards away. I dressed, made myself a cup of coffee, locked up,
and drove off to work.
Around lunchtime I got a call
from Charlie, a friend, asking me if I'd heard about some shooting at the high
school. I said no. I tried not to panic, for one thing, it didn't
seem like anything Cassie or Chris would be involved in. Probably just
some kids facing off in the parking lot, or a drive-by on Pierce Street.
For another, my coffee buddy, Val, and I had just picked up lunch at a
local market, and we were ready to eat. Besides, I had always thought of
Columbine as a safe school. Wasn't it? I decided to call Brad, just
in case he had heard anything. Brad was at the house when I called.
He had left work early and gone home sick. When he picked up the
phone, I told him what I had heard, and he said he had just gotten similar news
from Kathy, a friend at work. Brad had also heard several pops outside,
and one or two louder booms, but he wasn't too concerned. It was lunch
time, and there were always kids running around outdoors. Probably just
some prankster setting off firecrackers.
After I hung up, Brad put on his
shoes, went out to the back yard, and looked over the fence. There were
cops everywhere. Back in the house he turned on the TV and caught what
must have been the first news bulletins. Shortly after that the first
live coverage was aired. All at once the pieces came together, and he
realized that this was no prank. My eyes were still glued to the tube,
but I knelt at the corner of the couch and asked God to take care of all those
children. Naturally, my thoughts were focused on our kids, on Cassie and
Chris, but at the same time, in the back of my mind, I was sure they were both
okay. It seems that if something were to happen to someone so close to
you, you would sense something, feel something. I didn't.
The next thirty-six hours were pure
hell. By the time I got to Columbine, hundreds of desperate parents and
relatives, police officers, bomb squads, reporters, and onlookers had already
descended on the area around the school, and complete pandemonium
reigned. Enough facts had emerged for us to know the seriousness of the
situation, but the details were disjointed, contradictory, and confusing.
All we knew for sure was that two unidentified armed gunmen had gone on a
rampage through the school, mowing down students and boasting as they
went. Everyone was frantically looking for someone. People were
crying, praying, hugging each other, or just standing there stupidly, staring
numbly as the whole chaotic scene unwound around them. Many of the
families with children at Columbine were shepherded to Leawood, a nearby
elementary school, to await word from the police as to their safety.
Others of us were stuck at a public library, because Leawood couldn't
take any more people.
It was like a battle zone. Soon
lists of the injured and safe were being printed out and distributed. In
between scanning the latest updates, I ran breathlessly from one cluster of
students to another yelling for Cassie and Chris and asking if anyone had seen
them. Searching the school grounds itself was out of the question, of
course. The whole campus was cordoned off and surrounded by an eerie ring
of rifle-carrying SWAT teams. Chris showed up early in the afternoon; he
had fled to a neighbor's home near the high school and finally got through to
Brad, who was stationed by the phone at home. Brad reached me on my cell
phone. Immediately I breathed easier. Thank God. Now we only
have to look for one child. But the relief did not last more than a
second or two, as my thoughts raced back to Cassie.
Where was my daughter? Though
hundreds of fleeing students had been loaded into buses and driven off to
safety in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, others, like Chris, had
escaped the mayhem on foot, and in some cases it was hours before their
whereabouts were confirmed. The injured, many of them unidentified, had
been rushed off in ambulances, and dozens of others hid for hours in closets
and classrooms throughout the building. Some, we found out later, were
lying alone bleeding to death.
Around five o'clock those of us still
waiting for news of our children at the public library were told that one last
busload of students was on its way from the high school, and we should go over
to Leawood to meet it. Brad and Chris had joined me earlier in the
afternoon, and immediately we jumped into the car and drove toward the school
as fast as we could. Although our destination was only a few blocks away,
it was a terrible drive. Nearly every street near the high school had
been barricaded, and the few that were still open to traffic were clogged with
TV trucks and vans from every media outlet in Denver. Overhead, TV
helicopters clattered, and in front of us and behind us sirens wailed. My
heart was pounding so hard, I could hardly bear the anxiety.
Finally, we got to Leawood. Jumping
from the car, I craned my neck to look first one way down the street, then the
other. No bus. We waited. Minutes passed, and we kept
checking and rechecking the street. Still no bus. Finally, it
dawned on us, there was no last busload coming. I was beside
myself, distraught beyond words. Up to that point I had still hoped for
the best, but now? I felt deceived. Not intentionally, perhaps, but
deceived nonetheless, and so bitterly that it almost choked me.
I tried to convince myself.
She's always been resourceful, and might have found a good place. I
just hope she's not hurt. Or, it's better she's hurt than dead.
Weeks later we heard the police were certain that all the missing were dead as
early as eight o'clock that evening. They had accounted for everyone
else. But because they didn't have positive confirmation, they hadn't
said this, and so I continued to grasp at straws. Maybe she's hiding
somewhere. If she's injured she can at least be helped. But she's
got to make it through the night, or at least until somebody gets to her.
Hope is really the only thing that
will keep you going in such a crisis, even if it's a thin shred. By
nine-thirty I couldn't stand the tension any longer, and since the police were
not giving out any new information, Brad and I decided to go home. It
wasn't that we felt like giving up; that wasn't at all the case. But what
was the point of hanging around Leawood the rest of the night?
Back at the house Brad climbed on top
of the garden shed in our yard. He wanted to see for himself what was
going on in the school. Standing on the roof of that shed I could see
the whole school. Using binoculars I could even see right into the
library windows. I could see the yellow letters stamped on the blue coats
of the ATF men. They were walking around in there, heads down, as if
looking for something. I couldn't really see what they were doing, but I
guess they were stepping over bodies, looking for explosives. Later we
heard that they found dozens of bombs.
Around ten-thirty or eleven there was
an explosion from the direction of the high school. We rushed up the
stairs to Cassies bedroom to see if we could see flames or smoke or
anything else from her window, but we couldn't. Nothing but blackness,
and the low red and blue flashes of police cars and fire trucks on Pierce
Street. It must have been a bomb detonating. I was shaking with
fear and dread. What if Cassie was still alive? Gradually fatigue
overtook me, and I tried to go to sleep. It was impossible. Every
time I closed my eyes, a new nightmare would jolt me awake. Again and
again I saw Cassie. Cassie huddled in some dark closet, wondering if it
was safe to come out. Cassie lying cold on some hallway floor, bleeding
to death. Cassie crying out for help, with no one to comfort her.
How I longed to hold her, to stroke her head, to wrap myself around her
and hug and cry and laugh and squeeze her tight! The agony of her
absence, and the emptiness of her room, was almost more than I could take.
I had taken Cassie's pillow from her bed, and as the tears came I hugged
it and buried my face in it and breathed in her scent. Cassie's scent.
My baby's scent. I have never cried so long, or so hard.
Around three-thirty in the morning I
finally got up and dressed, and Brad walked with me down Polk to the corner,
where the first sheriff's car was sitting. Thinking the driver might have
something new to tell us, we asked him several pointed questions, but he only
hemmed and hawed. Finally Brad said, Look, just tell us the truth.
We have reason to believe that our daughter is still in the school.
Is anyone in there alive? The driver answered, Okay,
I'll give it to you straight. There is no one left alive.
Desperate as it seems, I was still not ready to give in, even then.
There's always a chance she's hiding in a closet somewhere, I told Brad,
or that she's one of the injured who wasn't accounted for at the hospital.
You never know. They think they have their facts straight, but that
doesn't mean they do.
It was twenty-two hours later, on
Thursday, around two o'clock in the morning, that my defenses finally
collapsed. The phone rang, and a woman from the coroner's office told us
what we had been dreading, though expecting, to hear. They had Cassie's
body. Now there was nothing to do but admit that our daughter was really
gone forever, that she would never come home to me again. But how can a
mother do that? I wept again, as I had never wept before.
From what I have since been told, it
must have been about eleven-fifteen that morning when Cassie walked into the
high school library, backpack on her shoulder, to do her latest homework
assignment. Another installment of Macbeth for -English class.
Crystal, a close friend, was in the library too. Sara, Seth, and I
had just gone over to the library to study, like any other day. We had
been there maybe five minutes, when a teacher came running in, yelling that
there were kids with guns in the hall. At first we were like, It's
a joke, a senior prank. Seth said, Relax, it's just paint
balls. Then we heard shots, first down the hall, then coming closer
and closer. Mrs. Nielsen was yelling at us to get under the tables, but
no one listened. Then a kid came in and dropped to the floor. There
was blood all over his shoulder. We got under our table, fast. Mrs.
Nielsen was at the phone by now, calling 911. Seth was holding me in his
arms, with his hand on my head, because I was shaking so badly, and Sara was
huddled under there with us too, holding on to my legs.
Then Eric and Dylan came into the
library, shooting and saying things like, We've been waiting to do this
our whole lives, and cheering after each shot. I had no idea who
they were. I only found out their names afterward, but their voices
sounded scary, evil. At the same time they seemed so happy, like they
were playing a game and getting a good kick out of it. Then they came up
to our table and knocked a chair over. It hit my arm, and then it hit
Sara on the head. They were right above us. I could hardly breathe,
I was so scared. Then they suddenly left the room, probably to reload.
It seemed like they had run out of ammunition. that's when we ran
for it. We dashed out a side door of the library, an emergency exit, and
made it just before they came back in.
Crystal lost track of Cassie once the
shooters entered the room, and there are conflicting versions of what she was
doing. One student remembers seeing her under a table, hands clasped in
prayer. Another says she remained seated. Josh, a sophomore who
spoke with me a few weeks after the incident, did not see her at all, but he
says he will never forget what he heard as he crouched under a desk about
twenty-five feet away. I couldn't see anything when those guys came up
to Cassie, but I could recognize her voice. I could hear everything like
it was right next to me. One of them asked her if she believed in God.
She paused, like she didn't know what she was going to answer, and then
she said yes. She must have been scared, but her voice didn't sound
shaky. It was strong. Then they asked her why, though they didn't
give her a chance to respond. They just blew her away. Josh says
that the way the boys questioned Cassie made him wonder whether she was visibly
praying. I don't understand why they'd pop that question on someone who
wasn't. She could've been talking to them, it's hard to tell. I
know they were talking the whole time they were in the library. They went
over to Isaiah and taunted him. They called him a nigger before they
killed him. Then they started laughing and cheering. It was like a
big game for them. Then they left the room, so I got up, grabbed my
friend Brittany by the hand and started to run. The next thing I remember
is pushing her through the door and flying out after her.
One of the first officials on the
scene the next day was Gary, a member of our church and an investigator from
the Jefferson County sheriff's department. When we got to the school
they divided us up into seven teams of investigators. All of the victims
who had been killed had been left in place overnight, because the investigators
wanted to make sure that everything was documented before they collected the
evidence. As soon as I entered the library I saw Cassie. I knew it
was her immediately. She was lying under a table close to another girl.
Cassie had been shot in the head at very close range. In fact, the
bullet wound indicated that the muzzle was touching her skin. She may
have put a hand up to protect herself, because the tip of one finger was blown
away, but she couldn't have had time to do more. That blast took her
The gap between April 20 and the
present grows a little wider with every passing day, but the details refuse to
fade. Sometimes the images surface so vividly, it seems like it all
happened yesterday. Doctors say the brain forgets pain, and that may be
so. I am not sure the heart forgets. If there is any reassurance to
be found in the recesses of the mind, it may be in those happy, simple things
that held us together as a family during the last week of Cassie's life.
Though uneventful in themselves, they are strangely satisfying to hang on
to, and comforting to replay.
A few weeks earlier Brad and I had
taken the kids up to Breckenridge, a nearby ski resort, for spring break, and
because we still had unused tickets, we had decided to let Cassie and Chris
take a day off from school (something we never do) to make use of
them. So there they were, going off to Breck on a Thursday, and as I
watched them leave the house with their snowboards, I stood there thinking how
my brothers and I had never done anything like that, and how special it was
that my children were close enough not only to get along, but to enjoy each
other's company in an activity they both loved. Friday they both were
back at school, and Saturday was prom night. Cassie did not have a date,
nor did her best friend, Amanda, but both girls were determined to have a good
time anyway. We couldn't go to the prom because we didn't have dates
because we're losers, but the place where my mom works was putting on this big
banquet that night at the Marriott, so Cass and I decided to dress up and do
our hair and be beautiful and go there instead. We had the greatest time.
Late that Saturday night Cassie called me from the Marriott to tell me
what a good time she was having with Amanda and her mother, Jill, and to say
that she was planning to stop off at the house and go to the after-prom at the
high school. Next thing I knew she was rattling through the house with
Amanda, banging the drawers as she looked for a new set of clothes, and telling
me she thought they'd be home early, because they weren't sure how it would go.
As it turned out, she got home at six in the morning.
Monday was Monday. Cassie was
behind on her homework and had tons to do, because she'd been playing all
weekend. Normally she babysat for friends of mine, but this week they
didn't need her, so we all ate together, which isn't unusual in our home, but
not something we do every night. After dinner she stayed up with her
homework. Looking back on that last evening of Cassie's life, I still
see her sitting there in the kitchen. She hadn't done her chores yet, and
I'm sure I nagged at her. Now that she's gone it's painful to admit.
So is my belated recognition that our relationship, though generally
good, was not ideal, not that night, nor any other. But it's too late to
agonize over what could have been. Perhaps the cruelest irony of losing
Cassie the way we did is the fact that she never would have been at Columbine
that day in the first place, had we not tried to rescue her by pulling her out
of another high school, the one where she had begun the ninth grade, just
two-and-a-half years before. Of course, at that time our relationship was
frayed almost beyond repair, and it felt like a minor victory every time we got
her home from school in one piece, let alone into the kitchen for a mundane
event like a family meal or an evening of homework. But that's another
Copyright 1999 Plough Books.
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