Columbine: 20 Years Later
There is no one story about what happened on April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School. Twenty years later, 9NEWS is revisiting some of the people and places that changed forever after the tragedy that defined the community.
An aerial photo taken of the Columbine High School campus in 2019. It has been 20 years since the Jefferson County, Colorado school was the site of what was then the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.
The word “Columbine” means different things to different people.
To some, the word represents one of the darkest days in Colorado history. To others, it represents hope and perseverance.
As the world prepares to mark 20 years since the deaths of 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School, journalists all over the country will likely report on both sides of the Columbine equation.
Both the negative and the positive are equally powerful and worthy of coverage.
This project, however, will not necessarily fit into one side or the other. That’s intentional.
When members of our staff met with victims and families last July to prepare our coverage, each person reminded us the focus 20 years after the tragedy should be less on the event, and more on the lives of those touched by the event.
We heard stories we’d never heard before, and that’s what we will try to capture here.
This is not an all-encompassing story.
Honestly, there are likely not enough hours in a day to tell all the stories of all the victims and their families and their friends.
This is an attempt to capture at least a little bit of the spirit of that July meeting. Maybe that’s the best way to try to do that.
There is no ONE story of Columbine. Columbine carries with it a myriad of meanings.
Our documentary titled simply “Columbine” seeks merely to capture a few of them.
Dawn Anna and Bruce Beck lost their daughter in the Columbine High School shooting. They received a seedling from what’s known as the “Survivor Tree” in 2000. It now thrives in their backyard.
Mark Bays looked at the towering American Elm sitting in the middle of the grounds at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and smiled.
“The little small flower petals are starting to come out," Bays said. “It’s a tough, native tree from Oklahoma."
The sheer fact the tree is still here is, to many, nothing short of miraculous.
Dubbed the "Survivor Tree," the elm survived the April 19, 1995, domestic terrorist attack at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.
“It’s just amazing to me this tree was able to survive in the parking lot,” Bays said.
A view of the “Survivor Tree,” an elm that was still standing after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. It has become a symbol of resilience, and its seedlings now go to the victims of tragedies around the country.
Every year, the memorial’s staff members collect the tree’s seeds when they drop in the spring and then send them off to Sunshine Nursery in Clinton, Oklahoma, where Steve Briebrech turns them into seedlings. From there, the seedlings are sent all over the world to help people deal with tragedies.
In 2000, some of the seedlings went to the families of the Columbine High School shooting victims. Today, one of those seedlings has turned into a 20-foot tree in the backyard of the home of Lauren Townsend’s mother and stepfather.
“It’s a beacon of survival,” Dawn Anna said. “We’re very proud ours is surviving.”
Lauren Townsend was one of the 12 students who die in the shootings at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. She was 18. Teacher Dave Sanders was also killed.
“Her goal was to make someone smile every day, and she did that,” Anna said.
The tree has come to symbolize Lauren’s spirit in many ways.
Frank DeAngelis, the former principal of Columbine High School, speaks during a conference in Anaheim, California.
Since the shooting, he’s taken on a role that’s unfortunately necessary: helping others navigate similar tragedies.
Frank DeAngelis has logged more miles than he can count in the 20 years since he heard the gunfire erupt close to his principal’s office.
“It’s hard to believe it’s going to be 20 years,” he said as he got ready to board a plane at Denver International Airport bound for southern California.
Since the start of the year, the now-former principal of Columbine High School has traveled to South Carolina, San Francisco, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, Ohio and Anaheim.
“I can talk about the aftermath … what to expect,” he said.
DeAngelis retired in 2014 after 20 years of leading the Jefferson County school.
“I can remember two days after the tragedy, my father said to me, ‘Frank, there’s a good chance that you could have lost your life, but God spared you. Now you need to go rebuild that community, and you don’t have to walk that journey alone,’” he said.
In Anaheim, DeAngelis spoke to the Association of California Administrators. His speech starts out roughly the same way every time he delivers it.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of my beloved 13. They walked into Columbine High School at about 7 a.m. on April 20th and never returned home,” he told the conference.
He shows a picture of every victim during the slide presentation.
“The kids that you see up here, they would no longer be kids. They’re 37 or 38-year-old adults, and they died in my school,” he said.
After the speech, DeAngelis told us he wants the people in the crowd to consider what they could do should a tragedy ever hit their schools.
“I can talk about the aftermath, what to deal with, things you would never expect,” he said.
The next day, DeAngelis received a call from Ty Thompson,the principal of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School.
The school was dealing with the one-year anniversary of a shooting that left 17 dead.
Zach Martin, Cris Welsh, Mandy Cooke and Noel Sudano all survived the Columbine High School shooting, and 20 years later, they’re teachers there.
Four people who now work in Columbine High School once fled the very same school on April 20, 1999.
Back then, Zach Martin, Cris Welsh, Mandy Cooke and Noel Sudano were among the roughly 2,000 students who attended the high school at the time.
Today, Martin, Welsh and Cooke are all teachers, and Sudano is a counselor.
“There was never any thought for me that it was going to be anything but Columbine,” Welsh said.
“I wanted to be a teacher, and I don’t think I ever envisioned specifically teaching here until I got into the building … Now it just feels like home,” Martin said.
“My senior year of college, I just had an epiphany that I wanted to be a school counselor and create a safe space for kids, and I did not expect my journey to bring me back to Columbine, but it has been really powerful because it feels like I’m coming full circle,” Sudano said.
“It was my family, and it was meant to be,” Cooke said.
Sean Graves was shot inside of Columbine High School. He was confined to a wheelchair,
but made a vow to walk at his graduation. And a few years later, he did.
Sean Graves made a pledge to walk during his high school graduation.
Three years later, in 2002, Graves fulfilled that pledge. He was 15 years old and a freshman at the time of the 1999 shooting.
Graves was shot six times.
“I kept repeating to myself, ‘Don’t trip. Don’t trip,’" Graves said. “When I accepted my diploma, I just, it’s hard to explain. I knew the goal was done, and at the same time, I didn’t know what was next."
Years later, that graduation walk would inspire a teenager in a small town in Nebraska to do the same thing.
Ryan Kile met Sean Graves in 2011 inside a room at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colorado. At the time, Kile was trying to recover from a devastating car accident that had left him paralyzed from the waist down.
Like Graves, he was 15 at the time of the injury and a freshman in high school. And like Graves, three years later, Kile stood up and – with the help of his high school basketball coach – walked at his own graduation.
“When I became a senior, I was like, 'Ok, this could be possible. I could do this. Sean did this. Why can’t I?'” Kile said.
He, too, received a standing ovation.
Sean Graves found out about Kile’s walk when his mother-in-law showed him an article about it in the Hastings Tribune. He kept the article in his wallet for years.
“I’d be getting negative on myself," Graves said. "And I’d just remember that article was in my wallet and – if I had to – I could pull it out and look at it.
Patrick Ireland was wounded inside of the library of Columbine High School. An image of him escaping through a window became of a symbol following the mass shooting and 20 years later, he now has children of his own.
Twenty years after Patrick Ireland, badly wounded, escaped out of a window at Columbine High School, the person behind one of the more iconic images of that day credits his friends and family with helping him recover both physically and mentally.
“So many of my strong bonds and relationships were formed from everything that we went through at Columbine,” said Ireland, now a 37-year-old father of three. “There was no playbook written for how a community should respond to this.
“People just opened up their hearts and their homes and were able to create that sense of belonging that really bonded the community together.”
His oldest daughter is now 8. She doesn’t yet know the full story. She will though, likely sooner rather than later.
“It’s part of our history and how we grew up," Ireland said. "It’s definitely important for the kids that are growing up today to be aware of it, and learn about it, and yet not be afraid as a result of it. That’s probably the biggest concern that I have is that I don’t want her to feel fearful of going to school, because we had such a great experience growing up in this community, in elementary school through high school."
He remains close with many of his Columbine classmates, many of whom were in his wedding.
“It’s really cool that we’re still friends, still hanging out,” Ireland said.
A scrapbook of memories about the life of Kelly Fleming, who was one of the 12 students shot and killed during the Columbine High School shooting.
A few weeks before the shootings, Kelly Fleming told her aunt – on camera – she had dreams of being a writer.
“Hopefully, hopefully,” Fleming said.
The video still brings a smile to the faces of her parents Dee and Don Fleming.
“I just love to watch and see her, to be able to see her as she was. She was on the brink of so many things,” Dee Fleming said. “She was a gift… a gift."
Dee and Don Fleming’s daughter Kelly was shot and killed inside of Columbine High School. Twenty years later, they’re working to preserve their daughter’s memory.
The Flemings said they believe Kelly remains in their lives on a near daily basis. “She’s really good about reaching out. We have certain signs that we know she sends that we recognize. It all kind of started on her 17th birthday out at the cemetery. I was asking God for a sign that she was okay. Right before we left the cemetery, I got this bubbling, rainbow of colors in the clouds – pastels and pinks – and I took it as that was my sign,” Dee Fleming said.
Today, whenever they see a rainbow, they think of Kelly.
“Some people will say, 'Yeah, those are coincidences.' We elect to believe they are not,” Don Fleming said. “We do feel like Kelly is somewhere. We think she is in a great place, and she comes to us from time to time in different ways.”
The Flemings still live in the same house as they did in 1999 and credit the people in their neighborhood and the surrounding community for helping them deal with their grief.
“When we lost Kelly, the whole block rallied around us,” Don Fleming said. “I mean, they were with us every step of the way.”
“When we were fundraising for the (Columbine) memorial, kids would come up with bags of pennies and coins,” Don said.
Years after Kelly’s death, she did manage to become a published author.
“Ultimately we were able to get one of her stories published in Chicken Soup of the Teenage Soul Book Three," Dee Fleming said. "So, I know she was smiling down and super happy that people were reading something she wrote. That was cool."
The Columbine Memorial
Victims' families talk about how grief, perspectives have changed over time
Families of the Columbine High School shooting victims gathered at the school on Saturday to tell their stories nearly 20 years after the tragedy, and they spoke of forgiveness, inclusion and healing, and the balm that sometimes only silence can bring.
With attention being brought back to Columbine High School as the date approaches marking 20 years after the shootings that left 13 victims dead, we sat down with the school's current principal, Scott Christy, about leading a school with a history like no other.
In the post-shooting library at Columbine High School, the crush of media and attention is no surprise to the people impacted 20 years ago.
The emotional toll of the shooting that killed 12 classmates and a teacher has been amplified by fears about their own kids' safety.
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